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McNeill aims to make Hawks' roster this season

by Brian Hedger /
Like the rest of the Chicago Blackhawks' prospects, center Mark McNeill took note of the numerous moves the team made recently in both free agency and trades.

The Hawks dealt away defenseman Brian Campbell and forwards Tomas Kopecky and Troy Brouwer before bringing in a haul of eight veterans via various transactions. Barring one or more trades to lessen the backlog of players, those vets will open training camp in the fall with Chicago. It doesn't leave much, if any, room for prospects to crack the Hawks' roster.

Still, that's the stated goal for the 18-year old McNeill, a 6-foot-1, 211-pounder taken by Chicago with the 18th pick at the 2011 Entry Draft.

"Same mindset," McNeill said after his first workouts at the team's prospects camp that started on Thursday and runs through Monday. "First impressions are key for the coaching staff and coaches throughout the organization, and I've got to be playing at my best. My mindset right now is I'm here to try and make the Chicago Blackhawks."

Before all the recent transactions made by Hawks GM Stan Bowman, it looked like his odds of accomplishing that goal might be better than average in the fall. Bowman wanted to add center depth to the Hawks and throughout the organization. McNeill certainly fits the description.

He's big, he plays the defensive end as hard as he does in the offensive zone and his determination is unquestioned. He's also got a willingness to fight, if necessary. The 2010-11 season was McNeill's second full campaign with the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League and he tallied 32 goals and 81 points to go with 53 penalty minutes in 70 regular-season games. He also added a pair of goals and 5 points in six playoff matches.

"Mark McNeill is a very physically developed player for 18 years old," Bowman told the Arlington Heights Daily Herald at the draft. "He plays a two-way game. He can score, he can fight, he's physical and can play the defensive side of the puck. He's a leader and the kind of kid you're looking for."

Whether that's right away or a year or two out remains to be seen, but McNeill plans to let his play make the case for him in 2012.

"I'm a two-way power forward and I think I play a pretty powerful game," said McNeill, who will head back to juniors for the 2012 season if he doesn't find a spot in Chicago. "I can chip in offensively as well as hold my own defensively. At the end of the day, it's the GM and the coaching staff's decision and I've just got to come out here, make a good first impression and work my hardest."

That wasn't a problem at prospects camp, which is held at Johnny's Ice House West just down Madison Street from the United Center. On his first day, McNeill went through a scheduled 30-minute workout with his own group of eight prospects and then was asked to go through another one right after it because that group was a player short.

Another center and fellow 2011 first-round pick, Phillip Danault (No.26), did the same thing in the previous two groups. Both relished the opportunity to work a little longer under the watchful eyes of Bowman and others from the Hawks, who now have a variety of center prospects they like within their system.

Still, aside from his position, it's McNeill's attitude that could get him to the NHL quickly despite that logjam of veterans and other prospects. McNeill didn't show up to this prospects camp with a big ego about where he was drafted. He just showed up ready to compete.

"I think everyone here is on the same level," said McNeill, an Edmonton native who contributed six assists for Canada at the 2011 U-18 World Championships. "It's a clean slate. The real work starts now. It has nothing to do with where you got drafted. I want to keep improving in all areas of my game and keep pushing the bar higher."

As high as making the Hawks' roster in the fall, like Nick Leddy did last year as a 19-year old?

"That's the coaches and the GM's decision," McNeill said. "I have no control over that. Like I said, I've just got to come out here and play my best hockey."

So far, so good.
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