September 21, 2006
(TORONTO) -- Jeff O'Neill slipped through the glass doors at the Ricoh Coliseum to find a pack of cameras and notepads waiting him but this is the nature of life as a Toronto Maple Leaf. You're hot news when you're up and you're hot news when you're down.
|Jeff O'Neill is hoping to blast in a few goals this season. |
O'Neill, bartered from the Carolina Hurricanes in the summer of 2005 for a conditional fourth rounder, endured a poor 2005-2006 with just 19 goals and several games lost to the press box.
But this season, a year removed from the death of his brother Donny and playing for his coach in Carolina, Paul Maurice, O'Neill has found the peace of mind that eluded him last season. He has probably been the best Leaf in the club's two exhibition games and is playing and skating with a purpose altogether lacking last year.
"For whatever reason, I was never able to get my mind on the game last year," said the 30-year-old O'Neill. "It was real tough year for me and for my family but now I feel refreshed. My mind has settled on hockey. I'm refocused."
Maurice loves the kid in the way a principal loves an earnest truant.
It was under Maurice that O'Neill struck for four seasons of 25 or more goals including 41 in 2000-2001. That's why Maurice called O'Neill this summer, to check in and make sure he was diligent in his offseason workouts.
"Jeff and I are always direct with each other," said Maurice. "It's no surprise, I care for the guy. You know a player and a man this long, you want to see him do well. I believe in his talent."
As well he might. If O'Neill can recapture his truculent game, one of the Leafs major shortcomings, a paucity of physical, hard-skating wingers goes out the windows. He has a terrific shot, can win face-offs when asked and is a slightly better than average skater. It is not impossible to suggest he could return as a first line left winger for Mats Sundin.
O'Neill needs to work and he knows it.
"I think everyone needs to be pushed, myself included" O'Neill said. "I don't want to hear three games down the road that my last three games weren't acceptable. I want to hear it the next shift."
"He (O'Neill) would fit into the half of the hockey dressing room you have to monitor," Maurice agrees.
For this, Maurice holds himself partially responsible. When O'Neill arrived in Hartford in 1995 body fat ratios were only discussed in bodybuilding books. Maurice, only 10-years-older than O'Neill, didn't yet know how to ask for more.
"I needed to be harder on him at 19," said Maurice, only half joking. "He was on the number one line with Brendan Shanahan and Nelson Emerson as a 21-year-old."
"We just basically have a man's relationship," said O'Neill of Maurice. "If I'm not doing something to his liking, he'll tell me to get my head out of my ass. It's a man's sport.
"I'm pretty much a standup guy. You can tell me what I'm not doing and I'll try to do it better. I don't think there are enough guys like that in the league."