Where there’s a Will ...

Robin
Robin Short
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The St. John’s IceCaps Will O’Neill went from being a dismal minus-11 in the first 17 games of the season to a plus-12 in the 39 games since.

St. John’s icecaps blueliner Will O’Neill playing with poise after overcoming early-season struggles

Will O’Neill admits this 2013-14 St. John’s IceCaps’ season has been one of ups and downs for the Boston-born defenceman, a point that probably falls into the understated category.
Fact is, O’Neill’s second year in St. John’s has been akin to a Canada Wonderland ride.

Poor Will O’Neill. If he didn’t have bad luck early on this season, he’d would have had none at all. Take the IceCaps’ first game of the year, at home against the Providence Bruins: score tied 3-3. Overtime. O’Neill has the puck at the Providence blueline, winds up for a shot and shatters his stick on the follow-through. Puck moves about six feet, is scooped up by the Bruins’ Nick Johnson who dashes all the way down the ice and beats Eddie Pasquale for the game-winner.

It got only marginally better after that. In five of the next 10 games, he would go minus-three twice, minus-two and, on two occasions, was minus-one. In late November, he was finally relegated to the press box for six straight games.

But guess what? That was then, and this is now, and O’Neill has emerged as the red-hot IceCaps’ best defenceman, a cool, confident hockey player, which is the exact opposite of what we were seeing earlier this season.

“It’s the best I’ve seen him play since he got here,” said captain Jason Jaffray.

After 17 games this season, the former NCAA standout with the University of Maine had one goal, six assists and a team-worst minus-11 rating. In 39 games since, O’Neill has scored seven goals, added 17 assists and has gone plus-12.

He’s manning the IceCaps’ top power play unit, is the team’s designated shooter during five-on-three situations and overall is making much better on-ice decisions. The turnovers and ill-advised pinches appear to be a thing of the past.

“I don’t think I was doubting my abilities,” O’Neill said this week, “but at the same time, it’s hard to go home after a game when you’ve been minus-two or minus-three and watch yourself turn the puck over on the highlights.”

O’Neill says long-distance family support helped him through the tough times, in particular words of encouragement from his father, Bill, who watches every game online. Bill O’Neill played college hockey, winning the 1978 NCAA championship with Boston University along with Jim Craig, Jack O’Callahan and Dave Silk, a trio who later starred on the 1980 U.S. Olympic “Miracle on Ice” team.

The elder O’Neill has been head coach at Salem St. University since 1981.

“My dad is always very positive, telling me to stick with it and keep practising. He keeps me going,” Will O’Neill said.

“I’ve had my ups and downs, last year and this year, but I know if I just keep working as hard as I can good things are going to happen.

“I love the game ... it’s so much fun. I think that’s a big part of it.”

O’Neill, 25, was originally drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2006. He didn’t turn pro until the end of the 2011-12 season, after his four years at Maine were done. He played last year on an NHL contract, producing three goals and 21 points in 59 games. However, the Jets did not grant him a qualifying offer after O’Neill became a restricted free agent, instead opting to bring him back on an AHL deal this season.

He is often one of the first players on the ice at practice, and is one of the last to leave the rink when the day is done. It’s a work ethic that isn’t lost on his teammates.

“He puts the work in, and you can see it,” Jaffray said. “He’s grown as a hockey player. He’s consistent, and the coaches definitely have a lot of confidence in him right now.”

Playing with Julian Melchiori since Kris Fredheim was injured, O’Neill is on a four-game point-scoring streak as the IceCaps embark today on a six-game road trip that begins Friday night in Hartford, Conn. He picked up an assist last Saturday night in a 3-2 win over the Portland Pirates, lugging the puck up the ice with poise and confidence, which resulted in a Carl Klingberg goal.

“When coach called me in back in November and said I wasn’t playing, I knew,” O’Neill said. “I wanted to play better, I wanted better results, better everything.

“I knew I needed to go back to the drawing board and work my butt off even more in practice and reload. I guess I wasn’t making my own luck, so I thought I just needed to get back to a simple game and go from there.”

In this case, it appears less really is more.

rshort@thetelegram.com

Organizations: IceCaps, Bruins, NCAA University of Maine Boston University Atlanta Thrashers NHL Jets Portland Pirates

Geographic location: U.S. Olympic, Salem, Maine Hartford, Conn.

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