by Chris Ballard | AHL On The Beat Archive
If you’re ever in St. John’s and you’re looking for IceCaps defenseman Will O’Neill, odds are you’ll find him on the ice at Mile One Centre.
The 26-year-old from Salem, Mass., has become famous for his tireless work ethic in practice and almost always spends a little extra time on the ice to squeeze in a few more shots or tinker with his saucer pass.
A late seventh round draft choice by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2006 – he was selected 210th overall, four picks from the end of the draft – O’Neill has put that hard work to good use over the last two seasons and has emerged as one of the most dangerous offensive threats from the blue line.
Since January 1st of last season, O’Neill ranks second among all AHL defensemen in points with 80 (19 goals and 61 assists in 117 regular season games), trailing only T.J. Brennan and sitting ahead of AHL All-Stars Chris Wideman of the Binghamton Senators and Brad Hunt of the Oklahoma City Barons.
Arguably the hottest player in the league to start 2015, he notched 16 points in his first 14 games of the New Year and while he certainly deserves his place among the AHL’s defensemen scoring leaders, his rise to the top didn’t start on the blue line.
“I grew up as a forward, either left wing or center, when I was little,” O’Neill admitted.
“I played forward until I was probably 12 years old. Then I remember a kid didn’t show up to play D, We only had three D, so I had to play. I noticed when I played defense, I could control the play. I got more touches with the puck, so it was a natural fit for me.”
O’Neill entered the pros following his final season in the NCAA in 2011-12 after serving as co-captain of the University of Maine Black Bears. At the college level, he came into his own as an offensively-gifted defenseman and picked up 33 points in 40 games, earning him a spot on the All-New England First Team and a Hockey East Tournament All Star nod.
O’Neill knew nothing was going to be handed to him, so he did what he knows best: he got to work.
“I know that every day I work, I get better,” he said.
“I know I feel better about it when I go to bed. The results will come. They might not come right away and I realized that. Really staying with it and working, it all comes together. It might not come this week or next week but it will come.”
His hard work peaked during last season’s playoff run as he helped propel the IceCaps to their first ever berth in the Calder Cup Finals, finishing in a tie for fifth among all skaters with 16 points in 18 games. While the IceCaps ultimately fell to the talented Texas Stars in five games, he still sees that postseason run as the culmination of his hard work.
“It all just came together for me,” O’Neill said.
“It was an up and down year where I really emerged in the second half of the season and it just kept going into the playoffs. I kept getting better as the season went on and the playoff run was the finished product. It’s a tribute to practice habits and work habits and what I do every day. We had an awesome team with a lot of veterans and a lot of good players. Just to be able to contribute to that team and be considered a winner like that is a big deal to me.”
O’Neill hasn’t yet received the call to the show and until he does, it will be business as usual with a steady diet of hard work and improving every day, even if it means making the Zamboni driver wait for him to squeeze in a few more shots after practice.
“I want to get that chance at the next level and take advantage of it,” he said.
“I obviously like to play against good players and with good players and I know I can get those good players the puck and make plays. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time before I get my chance.”