Will O’Neill hasn’t had to look far to find what would be a pretty good template for his hockey career. He’s been there, just one number up from him on the St. John’s IceCaps numerical roster and oftentimes, beside him on the IceCaps’ blueline.
O’Neill, No. 23 in your program, would very much like to be this year’s Zach Redmond, owner of the jersey No. 24. And with the end of the NHL lockout, his opportunity to do so has probably arrived.
IceCaps’ head coach Keith McCambridge confirmed Tuesday that St. John’s could lose up to three defencemen as the Winnipeg Jets collect bodies for a truncated training camp that will probably start this weekend. Paul Postma is definitely going, while Redmond and Derek Meech are also being considered, meaning the IceCaps will probably lose at least a third, perhaps a half, of their regular defensive corps.
But as he prepares to wave goodbye to a couple of teammates, O’Neill should keep his arm out in order to shake hands with opportunity.
“I think it can possibly be a great chance for me to see more ice time, to show the coaching staff they can rely on me more,” said O’Neill after an IceCaps practice Tuesday at Mile One Centre. “It’s a chance to show my teammates, to show everybody for that matter, that I am a good player and that I can play a lot.”
In other words, to be like Redmond — and not just in biographical background.
Last year, Redmond, a 24-year-old seventh-round draft pick coming off four years in the college ranks, was a revelation on the St. John’s blueline, so much so that he found a place at the 2012 AHL All-Star game.
O’Neill, a 24-year-old seventh-round draft pick coming off a four years in university, hasn’t had quite the same progression, but the lockout can be seen as a factor. In the first two months of last season, the Jets had recalled four different defencemen — Mark Flood, Postma, Arturs Kulda and Brett Festerling — from St. John’s. That, plus a knee injury to Meech, meant Redmond found himself more responsibility than is usually tagged on rookie rearguards, and he responded well.
Until now, there has been no such parent-club drain this season. In fact just the opposite, since one or two defenceman who could have been expected to play in Winnipeg found themselves in St. John’s during the lockout. That pushed O’Neill to around the 5 or 6 position on the depth chart. A few times, he found himself in the press box.
“Yeah, there have been times I’ve sat out some games and I’ve watched and didn’t played quite as many minutes as I would have (had there not been a lockout), but I’ve got to watch those guys and see how they bring it every day, game days and practice days,” said O’Neill, who then nodded towards Meech, who was in the midst of a TV interview.
“A guy like Meecher who has been around the Detroit Red Wings, been around a Cup-winning team ... seeing how he handles his business, staying pretty even-keel. You can learn a lot by just watching, just listening.”
McCambridge is counting on such lessons paying off ... and soon. He will be reminding O’Neill and fellow rookie defencemen Ben Chiarot, Julian Melchiori and Cody Sol about what’s at stake.
“That conversation with younger defenceman will take place once we know just what players are going to Winnipeg,” said the coach. “I’m sure it will be just stamping home what they already realize, that this will be an opportunity to log more minutes, and in the case of a player like Will O’Neill to get more power-play time.
“Development is what this league is about and they’re going to have to accelerate quickly on that development plane.”
O’Neill admits he has played out this week’s scenario in his mind, where the lockout ends and his moment arrives.
“There were times where I think those thoughts were going through my head a little too much,” said the Salem, Mass., native, who has a goal and eight points in 27 games this season.
“I just had to remind myself that if it wasn’t going to happen, it wouldn’t happen, that there’s a reason for just about everything.
“And I’m actually glad this is the way it’s worked out.”
“It’s been an unbelievable league this year so far and it’s been a big challenge for us on the back end, but I think it’s made me better, made me pick up on things that I maybe wouldn’t have got if I had been handed everything at the beginning.”
And as he said, he’s got a half-season of lessons from Postma, Meech, Dean Arsene and Redmond, who might not exactly be a mentor, but certainly is a model.
“We’ve come from the same places. He played in the USHL. I did, too. He went to college and stayed there (for the full four years) and I did, too,” said O’Neill, who graduated from the University of Maine last spring.
“Getting to watch at Redsy all this time and seeing what he has done has given me some incentive has got me really believing I can do the same thing, too, as long as keep on working.
“I know I’m definitely ready for whatever is going to be my role.
“I want to be a guy who is relied on.”
Notes: It’s going to be a hectic week around the IceCaps, with head coach Keith McCambridge saying up to five players could be heading to the Jets’ post-lockout training camp. “Depending on decisions up there and whatever league rules are pit in place, it could new or three defencemen, may be one or two forwards,” said McCambridge ... The good news is that defencemen Travis Ramsey and Julian Melchiori are both set to come off the injury list, and while John Albert won’t play against the visiting Toronto Marlies this weekend, the sophomore forward should ge set to go next week. “We had (winger) Kevin Clark as a healthy scratch last game, but if we lose two forwards, we may find ourselves short up front. Then, we’ll see what we need to do,” answered McCambridge when asked if there were any recalls planned from Colorado of the ECHL ... The St. John’s coach is thankful the lockout’s end didn’t come at a point in the AHL schedule where the IceCaps had mid-week games. “In that case, the scramble would have been on. At least we’ve got the rest of the week to catch our breath,” said McCambridge, whose team takes on the Marlies Friday and Saturday at Mile One.