Column: Some pluses for Will O’Neill

Brendan McCarthy
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Most hockey coaches — the St. John’s IceCaps’ Keith McCambridge included — will tell you they pay less heed to plus/minus figures then, say, those of us in the media.
Marc Crawford always claimed plus/minus only got his attention if the numbers were really high, on either side of the ledger.

Will O'Neill

There are some good reasons for this attitude, chief among them that plus/minus, as a raw figure, does not take into account a player’s role, or his role on a line or defensive pairing, or the quality of opposition that line or pairing plays against shift to shift.

A solidexample would be Newfoundland’s Daniel Cleary, who reinvented himself as a checking forward with the Detroit Red Wings almost a decade ago.

In his tenure with the Wings, Cleary has had one standout season when it came to plus/minus. That was 2007-2008, when Detroit won the Stanley Cup and Cleary was plus-21 during the regular season. Other than that, however, Cleary’s plus/minus figures have annually ranged between minus-6 and plus-6, which given his job, are actually very, very good.

Traditionally, the Wings haven’t counted on Cleary and his linemates haven’t been counted on for offence, although he has three seasons of 20 or more goals. They are meant to limit the opposition’s top scorers. Given the skill level of the players they usually face — you know they’re going to get goals, it’s just a matter of how many — and the fact they are concentrating on the defensive end, for Cleary and company to maintain a plus/minus at or around the even mark is creditable.

On the IceCaps, John Albert — now on recall to Winnipeg — falls into the category. As a so-called “energy” forward, Albert was minus-3 for St. John’s before his call-up, but there is no way you couldn’t tag him as an effective player because of that stat. The Jets certainly didn’t.

There are other ways to assess plus/minus.

Take IceCaps’ defenceman Will O’Neill, whose minus-seven rating is tied for worst on the team with rookie forward JC Lipon. Nevertheless, given recent history, O’Neill’s numbers demonstrate improvement.

Last month, O’Neill was minus-11, which led to his being a healthy scratch for six straight games. But since coming back into the lineup, the 25-year-old defenceman has been plus-4 over four games — individually, a plus-2, a couple of plus-1’s and an even.

Those four games might represent a small sample size, but O’Neill — whose minus-21 last season was poorest among IceCaps rearguards — has never had anything approaching that sort of stretch during his 87 career games with St. John’s.

More important, is the timing of the turnaround, coming just after that lengthy stint in civvies.

McCambridge says he’s always been pretty happy with O’Neill’s offensive game, but that too many bad pinches and ill-advised passes, or as McCambridge puts it,  “the 60-40 split, the wrong way, when he gambles, that’s cost him.”

His coach isn’t saying O’Neill wasn’t hit with any lightning bolt of revelation while he watched the IceCaps play from the press box. “Any time a player is a healthy scratch, especially for a number of games, you can be certain the coaching staff has already made it very clear what needed to change long before he sat,” said McCambridge.

But he did witness a demonstration of resolve on O’Neill’s part, before and after his return to action.

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“As a coach, you want to see how a player reacts (when he is scratched). You want to see his work ethic in practice. You want to see his body language, You want to see if he sulks,” said McCambridge.

“What I saw from Will O’Neill, what I’m seeing now, is that he has dug in his heels and worked hard.”

And whatever the plus-minus, that’s a positive.

•••••

Goaltender Eddie Pasquale has started and finished 21 of the IceCaps’ 27 games this season. Given that pace, he would be in line to make 59 appearances — and play about 3,500 minutes — over the course of the 76-game schedule.

That would be 16 more games and over 1,000 more minutes than he did last season.

When asked if he had a ceiling in mind — 55 or 60 games, perhaps? — for his No. 1 netminder, McCambridge wouldn’t be specific, but did allow he had a number in mind, while noting there are many things — injuries, call-ups, etc, — that can bust such projections to smithereens.

It is worth noting that Jussi Olkinuora has started, and won, three of St. John’s last eight games and could even get a start as the team finishes up its pre-Christmas schedule with games in Hamilton Saturday night and Toronto Sunday afternoon.

Olkinuora’s increased activity is partly because of St. John’s busy recent schedule — the IceCaps will have played 12 games in 24 days before starting their 10-day holiday break — but McCambridge also agrees there comes a time a backup goalie needs to play to build confidence in himself and also earn the confidence of his teammates.

By the way, the AHL records for goaltender workload are thew 74 games played by Mike O’Neill for the 1975-76 Baltimore Bandits (Dwayne Norris led that team in scoring) and the 4,360 minutes played by Roy Edwards on the 1959-60 Buffalo Bisons. In other words, Edwards played every minute of every one of the Bisons’ 72 games that season.

David Leggio, who is now with the Hershey Bears, led the AHL in goalie work in 2011-12, appearing in 64 games and playing 3,800 minutes.

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Organizations: IceCaps, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Bisons Hershey Bears

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Winnipeg, Toronto

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