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McNeill Poised to go Pro

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals

Of the 27 players listed on the roster for this week’s Washington Capitals rookie camp, eight have already signed contracts and will transition their careers as first-year North American pros this season. It’s conceivable that one or two others could make the jump by making a strong impression during the team’s ongoing rookie camp and into the Caps’ training camp.

Eight players is a lot to be feeding into an organization in the same season at the same time, especially when only one of those players (center Nicklas Backstrom) is a good bet to open the season with the parent Capitals. In drafting and signing so many players in the last few years, and it setting up a competitive camp environment for these players, the Caps are giving these young talents a good springboard with which to start their pro careers. Whether they start at AHL Hershey or with ECHL South Carolina is up to the players themselves.

“You definitely have to work a lot harder because there is nothing set in stone,” says defenseman Patrick McNeill. “The previous years I knew I’d be going back to Saginaw [of the OHL] and I had a spot there. But now that it’s pro hockey you’ve got to work for your spots. You’ve got to come out here and compete because everybody is working for jobs. Nothing is set in stone. This year I’ve just got to work that much harder.”

A lot of the incoming talent is on defense, where McNeill, Sami Lepisto and Sean Collins are all set to turn pro in 2007-08. They’re coming in a year behind defensemen Sasha Pokulok and Jamie Hunt, both of whom turned pro last season. And they’ve got blueliners Karl Alzner and Josh Godfrey – both chosen in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft – nipping at their heels.

At 20 years of age, McNeill is the youngest of this season’s incoming trio of blueliners. Lepisto, who turns 23 in October, has played professionally in Europe. Collins, who will celebrate his 24th birthday in October, played four full seasons at Ohio St.

McNeill was the first player chosen in the OHL’s priority selection draft in 2003, going to the Saginaw Spirit. As a 16-year-old rookie in the league, McNeill posted three goals and 14 points in 57 games during the 2003-04 season. The Spirit sagged in its second season in Saginaw, finishing with just 39 points, tied for the lowest total in the league.

The fortunes of McNeill and the Spirit have been intertwined since. Both he and the team made modest improvements in 2004-05, and the Caps took enough notice to spend a fourth-round choice (118th overall) on the budding blueliner. Both McNeill and the Spirit broke out in ’05-06. McNeill scored 21 goals and established a club record for defensemen with 77 points. His strong season helped lead Saginaw to its first ever playoff berth, and it also earned him the captain’s “C” for 2006-07.

“It’s a big role definitely,” says McNeill of captaining the Spirit. “I just did the right things and worked hard every day. I wasn’t the loudest guy in the room or anything, but I tried to show the younger guys the right way to go by hard work and doing the right things.”

The 2006-07 Spirit notched franchise records with 44 wins and 91 points. McNeill totaled 58 points in as many games and set a career high with 22 goals. In each of his four seasons with the Spirit, the team improved.

“It was good,” he says of his junior hockey experience. “I got to play with a lot of players who were young like me and we kind of grew together. I got to see some friends develop into great hockey players. It was nice seeing the team go from a losing team to a pretty successful team. It was good to be a part of.”

Shortly after the Spirit was ousted from the OHL playoffs, McNeill inked his first pro contract with Washington.

“It was pretty exciting,” he says, of signing that pact last spring. “I enjoyed my time in the OHL but I definitely felt it was time to move on and play at a higher level of hockey. It was real exciting and I was happy to sign with Washington because they’re a young team. I think it’s a good place for young players to get a chance so I was real excited about it.”

After signing the contract, McNeill reported to the AHL Hershey Bears. The Bears were in the midst of a second consecutive long playoff run at the time. Although he did not see any AHL action with the Bears, McNeill skated with the black aces, the team’s group of “extra” players. Like everyone else who was a black ace in Hershey, McNeill smiles at the mere mention of the aces.

“Yeah, I was a black ace for about three weeks,” he says. “It was fun living with those guys up there and getting that playoff experience – just watching – and getting to know a bit about the AHL. It was a great experience.”

It’s also an experience he believes will help him as he prepares for his first full pro campaign in 2007-08.

“Coming to all those [previous] camps and being in Hershey,” McNeill begins, “there is definitely a comfort level of meeting guys and getting to know guys, which is nice not coming into these camps being a young guys and not having any clue about what’s going on and not knowing anybody. It’s definitely comforting to know a few guys here and stuff like that. But getting the pro experience was huge, going there to Hershey, just to see how big and strong some of those guys were, and getting to see what it takes to play pro hockey. It was a good experience.”

A glance at his career stats line tells you that McNeill is a gifted offensive player. But he wants to be known for more than just his point totals.

“I always want to become a better skater now that the game is getting a lot faster, so I want to work on my skating and be faster,” he says, when asked which areas of his game he is looking to improve. “And people peg me as an offensive player, so I’d really like to work on my d-zone [coverage] just so everybody doesn’t look at me only for offense. I want to be known as a solid defender as well. So working on d-zone [play] and skating are probably my two major things that I want to work on.”

As far as blueline role models are concerned, McNeill doesn’t have to look far.

“There’s a guy from my hometown by the name of Brian Campbell,” he offers “I watched him in junior growing up in Ottawa. My town’s not very big, so there aren’t many guys from the NHL there. He’s a guy I’ve definitely taken a liking to and he’s definitely done well in the new NHL. So he’s a guy I like to watch.”

A sixth-round pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, Campbell spent the better part of three seasons apprenticing in the AHL before emerging as one of the NHL’s top two-way defenders since the end of the lockout. The Caps would be thrilled to see McNeill follow a similar career path.

Born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1987, this Patrick knows hard work beats luck. And he’s ready to start his journey with a small step.

“I want to get in a solid season at the American Hockey League,” says McNeill, when asked of his goal for the 2007-08 season. “And you never know what can happen, right? Just a real solid year.”
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