It’s been just over a year since the Washington Capitals exercised a fourth-round pick (118th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft on defenseman Patrick McNeill
. After some trying seasons in junior hockey and a personal setback, McNeill has been flying high and true on the radar for the last several months. As he prepares for what will almost certainly be his final season in the Ontario Hockey League, the 19-year-old native of Strathroy, Ont. is one of Washington’s most intriguing blueline prospects.
Like most of his fellow 2005 draftees, McNeill learned he was a Capital by electronic means.
“I was at my house with my family,” he recalls. “I was outside on our deck and I got a call from my agent, who let me know that I was drafted. I was relieved to finally find out and I was quite happy to find out I had been drafted by Washington.”
Two years earlier, McNeill had been the first overall choice in the 2003 OHL Priority Selection, joining noteworthy NHLers such as Kirk Muller, Eric Lindros, Jeff O’Neill and Jason Spezza, who are among previous players to achieve that distinction. McNeill was the first choice of the lowly Saginaw Spirit, a team that had just completed its first season in the league with a dismal 11-45-5-7 record.
Things didn’t get much better with McNeill on board in 2003-04. The Spirit showed a modest improvement of five points in the standings, but were still virtual light years removed from a playoff berth.
McNeill’s draft season of 2004-05 brought more of the same. He led the team’s defensemen in scoring with 33 points (seven goals, 26 assists), but another five point bump in the standings did nothing to lift the Spirit closer to a postseason perch.
Heading into his third season of OHL hockey, McNeill first made a stop in Washington to attend the Capitals’ 2005 training camp. But that didn’t go as expected or hoped, either. A shoulder injury had not altogether healed, and McNeill ended up failing his physical examination. He was not be able to participate in any on-ice activities at his first NHL training camp, and was returned to Saginaw shortly thereafter.
“I was extremely disappointed,” McNeill admits. “But I got to come to camp and it was still a great experience to be around the older guys, guys with families and things like that. It really opens your eyes to what you’re getting yourself into, so it was a great experience even though I was only there for a day.”
McNeill put a positive spin on the experience, and then went out and had a brilliant season with the Spirit in 2005-06. He stayed healthy throughout the season, playing in all 68 regular season contests. He led all OHL defensemen in scoring with 77 points (21 goals, 56 assists). He raised his defensive rating from a chilly minus-29 to a more torrid plus-24. And perhaps most significantly, as the Spirit’s captain, he led his team to its first-ever OHL playoff berth.
McNeill and the Spirit’s meteoric rise reminded some of a similar scene that played out with a 2004 Capitals’ draftee, defenseman Mike Green
. Green had played for a terrible team (the Saskatoon Blades) during his draft year, a circumstance that some believed caused him to slip slightly in the draft itself. Like McNeill, Green was a minus-29 in his draft year. Green bumped that number to plus-36 the following season. Like McNeill, Green captained his team to a playoff berth and led his league’s defensemen in scoring the season after he was drafted. Like McNeill, Green logged a heavy load of ice time in all game situations.
In 2005-06, Green turned pro and was one of the top defensemen for the Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears. He also got into 22 NHL games and scored his first NHL goal, beating future Hall of Famer Eddie Belfour, then of the Toronto Maple Leafs. McNeill is well aware of Green’s saga, and he would love to keep the similarities coming.
“I have kind of followed Mike Green
and his progress,” says McNeill. “If I could do something like that, I would be ecstatic. I just want to go back to Saginaw and have another solid year there, and hopefully get a chance to prove something here.”
McNeill has taken another significant step since the conclusion of the Capitals’ annual summer development camp last month. Invited to participate in Canada’s National Junior Team development camp in Calgary in late July, McNeill scored three goals in the three-game camp exhibition tourney. No other blueliner scored more than one. McNeill’s performance in Calgary may ultimately help him land a berth on Team Canada for the 2007 World Junior Championships, to be held in Sweden beginning Dec. 26, 2006 and ending Jan. 5, 2007.
Watching McNeill play, it’s easy to tell that he has an offensive bent to his game. He passes the puck quickly and accurately, and is very quick and mobile on his skates. McNeill enjoys rushing the puck as well, and is very adept at spotting openings and jumping into the play. His good speed enables him to take chances while still giving him enough time to get back and help out in his own end if things don’t quite work out.
“I’m a little bit more of an offensive defenseman,” he acknowledges. “I like to jump into the play. But I’d really like to work on the defensive part of the game. Instead of just being known as an offensive defenseman, I’d like to be more of an all-around guy. Without losing any of that offensive ability, I want to be able to be solid in the back end, too.”
During the course of his career to date, McNeill has had the benefit of working underneath a couple of coaches who were both pretty solid two-way defensemen during their playing days. While skating for the Junior B Strathroy Rockets in his hometown, McNeill played for head coach Pat “Whitey” Stapleton, who was good enough to play regularly for Boston and Chicago during the NHL’s “Original Six” era. Stapleton’s career spanned 635 NHL games and 372 more in the World Hockey Association.
During part of his second season with Saginaw, McNeill played for head coach Doug Lidster, who enjoyed a 16-year career during which he skated in 897 NHL games. Lidster was known as one of the game’s most cerebral players during his playing days, a quality that enabled him to judiciously pick his spots for jumping into the play.
Although he grew up rooting for the Maple Leafs, McNeill admires a modern defenseman who is even more accomplished in the mold of a two-way defenseman than either Stapleton or Lidster.
“The player that I really like is Scott Niedermayer,” says McNeill. “He is an excellent skater, he has great offensive ability, is great defensively and is just a great all-around defenseman. I have admired him since I was young.”
If McNeill ends up being even a pale imitation of Niedermayer, he’ll be a pretty good NHL player. At the rate at which McNeill is currently improving and at which his stock is rising, nothing seems out of reach.