Reid McNeill has yet to make his NHL debut.
That hasn’t stopped him from having his name mentioned along with several prominent defenseman.
While playing with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League in 2011-12, McNeill’s regular defense partner was a 15-year-old named Aaron Ekblad.
That’s because Ekblad, now 18, was taken first overall by the Florida Panthers in June’s NHL Entry Draft.
“It was a great experience,” McNeill said of playing with Ekblad. “Right out of the gate, the kid was a star. I think he put up about 40 points (29 actually) as a 15-year-old in the best junior league in the world. I tried to help him out as much as I could with my experience in the league.”
McNeill, 22, said he remains close with Ekblad and wished him luck before the draft. Seemed to work out pretty well, no?
McNeill was traded to Barrie after playing with the London Knights from 2009-11. The package deal that sent McNeill to the Colts enabled London to draft current Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta in the 2011 Canadian Hockey League Import Draft; Maatta was taken first overall.
McNeill is a 6-foot-4, 215-pound defenseman who this season added a physical element to his game. After struggling early on with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, McNeill found a comfortable edge and wound up playing in 55 regular season games, finishing a plus-5 with five points and 119 penalty minutes.
“Early on, I didn’t feel like I had a role on the team,” McNeill said. “I sat out a lot at the start of the year. As the year went on, I developed more of a physical edge, something some other guys couldn’t bring. It was something the team needed.”
The mentor role is something McNeill has always enjoyed. He was defense partners with former Knights captain and current Penguins prospect Scott Harrington in London from 2009-11. This season he played quite a bit alongside Harrison Ruopp, who was recently bumped up from Wheeling.
“I was 20 when Aaron was 15,” McNeill explained. “Being such a young kid coming into the league, he did a lot of things that 15-year-olds would do. I just tried to help him out, but he was unbelievable.”
McNeill has kept tabs on Ekblad. He’s monitored his progress. And like many, McNeill said he’s expecting big things from the top overall pick.
“He’s a little more offensive than I remember, but his game is such a two-way game,” McNeill said. “He’s developed so much since he was a 15-year-old. I expect him to do great things.”
>>Associate general manager Jason Botterill, assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald, head coach Mike Johnston and assistant coach Rick Tocchet, among others, watched Friday’s workout at Budweiser Gardens. Johnston stood and watched the practice-ending shootout from glass. General manager Jim Rutherford and assistant GM Bill Guerin are expected to arrive tonight.
“It’s good to see them coming out here to see us,” forward Adam Payerl said. “It shows they care enough to get to know the young prospects in the system. You just want to play your best and try to make a good impression on them when they’re watching.”
WBS coach John Hynes on what he’s expecting to see over the next four days:
“It’s not necessarily pressure that they have to score goals or do something outside of what their skill set is, but they want to be able to impress with their work ethic, how they play. Like I said, we talk to the players a lot about, ‘There has to be something that separates you.’ Everyone comes here with a different skill set. Some guys are workers, some guys are skill guys. But they have to be able to show those things.”
Harrington on sensing an opportunity with injuries to Maatta and Derrick Pouliot:
“I think every year is equal opportunity. It’s unfortunate for some of those guys who’ve had some injuries over the summer. Maybe for guys who have been able to train all summer, it’s an opportunity for us to show what we’ve been able to accomplish. I’m really just focusing on my game and myself, trying to play the best that I can and not get hung up on if guys are hurt or where they are in their situations.”
Be GRATEFUL to each other,