LOS ANGELES — Last April, when Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Brian O’Neill was named as the 2014-15 recipient of the Les Cunningham Award as the American Hockey League’s Most Valuable Player, if you listened carefully enough, you may have heard people asking, “who?”
Indeed, it was not until this past season that O’Neill began to appear on the radar as a legitimate Kings prospect.
“A lot of that has to do with my age, being a late bloomer, going to college and not being drafted,” said O’Neill. “[He] was a free agent signing. But I’ve been with the Kings for awhile. A lot of the guys they draft they have [been in the minors] for three or four years before they turn pro, and they’re still on everyone’s radar. But everyone advances differently in their career. My path is a little bit unique [compared to] other kids on the team. But L.A. has done a good job of bringing kids along [slowly]. Regardless of your age, they take their time with guys, and they’ve gotten really good results.”
More on that later.
“I didn’t play a whole lot of hockey, compared to other kids, growing up near Philadelphia,” O’Neill continued. “Hockey really isn’t a priority there. That contributed to the late start. People also mature, physically, at different [rates]—you hit your peak at different times. Now, I’m starting to get into my own, compared to other players who mature at an earlier age, and hit their peak a little bit quicker.”
O’Neill, who didn’t start playing hockey until he was eight or nine years old, enrolled at Yale University when he was almost 20 years old, roughly two years later than most freshmen. As O’Neill mentioned, he went undrafted after playing four seasons at Yale, before signing an AHL contract (not a National Hockey League contract with the Kings) with the Manchester Monarchs to begin his professional hockey career.
In other words, the 5-9, 173-pound native of Yardley, Pennsylvania wasn’t even an NHL prospect when he started in the pros. Nevertheless, O’Neill earned a one-year contract with the Kings for the 2013-14 season, and he made the best of the new deal, scoring 26 goals and adding 21 assists for 47 points with a +31 plus/minus rating, even though his season was limited to 60 regular season games due to injury.
The Kings signed him to a two-year deal last season, a breakout year for O’Neill, who scored 22 goals and contributed 58 assists for 80 points in 71 regular games, with a +30 plus/minus rating. As reported earlier, he was named as the Most Valuable Player in the AHL last season.
“You’ve got to be on a good team,” O’Neill said. “That award comes from being on a really good team. Just about every guy has been on a top team, which makes things a little bit easier.”
O’Neill was also a major contributor to the Monarchs’ run to the 2015 Calder Cup Championship, scoring ten goals and adding ten assists for 20 points in 19 playoff games.
“Being in my third year in the league helped,” O’Neill noted. “Early on, I had to make that adjustment from college to the pro ranks. The combination of all that coming together led to the success last season.”
Entering the final year of his contract, and with Most Valuable Player and Calder Cup Championship honors under his belt, O’Neill has put himself on the radar.
“His season last year, being MVP of the American league, kind of dictated what he was able to accomplish down there,” said Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake. “He’s very competitive, has a very good touch around the net, he scores a lot of goals the hard way—where he’s getting into traffic.”
“He’s not big, in stature, but he competes at the level of the big guys,” added Blake. “He doesn’t overwhelm you with his speed. He’s quick enough, but his sense of going into some of those tougher areas, picking up loose pucks, and finding ways—he’s got a great release on his shot. He’s very effective. That line together, playing alongside [Jordan] Weal and [Michael] Mersch in the playoffs—that was a very effective line.”
As Blake indicated, despite his lack of size, O’Neill has learned to do more than hold his own against bigger, stronger players.
“Everyone would like to be 6-2 or 6-3,” said O’Neill. “As you go up levels in hockey, you’ve got to make adjustments, and those who can make those adjustments quicker than others will have success at the next level. Physically, I’m probably a little quicker than most guys, which I use around the wall. But what I use most is my hockey IQ.”
“If you look at any of the smaller guys, like a Martin St. Louis, or a Johnny Gaudreau—guys like that—they’re probably some of the smartest guys in hockey,” added O’Neill. “Anyone who’s undersized who wants to have success at the top level is going to have to use their head to figure things out—how to get out of certain situations—and use their size to their advantage. That’s the common denominator for most guys who are undersized. If you pay attention to all their games, you’ll pick up on that pretty quickly.”
An example of that is play in the corners.
“Sometimes, in the corner, you start getting leverage on a guy, but if you do get leverage, it often results in a cross-checking penalty or a hold,” O’Neill explained. “But the really good guys who do that, like St. Louis, or Patrick Kane, it’s really hard to knock those guys off the puck, simply because they’re so aware of where they are. They can spin off guys a little easier than a guy who’s 6-3 or 6-4. There are certain situations where you can use that to your advantage, and if you can do that, you’ll have some success, offensively.”
“The guys who are really good at it are really strong in their legs, and they have a low center of gravity, so they have a big advantage down low,” O’Neill elaborated. “They’re not going to be holding onto the puck, fending off guys for an extended period of time. But for a brief second or two, they can get some separation, and that’s all they need to make a play.”
O’Neill credited the Kings development staff and their emphasis on puck possession.
“L.A. does a really good job of stressing the importance of puck possession, and whether you’re 6-4 or 5-9, you’ve got to, somehow, find a way to protect the puck,” he said. “You either adapt or you don’t. The development staff has helped the smaller guys [to learn to hold off] the bigger guys. They’ve helped us improve our puck protection skills, and I think that’s played a big role in the success I’m having at the minor league level, because if you can protect the puck, you have an extra second or two to get your head up and make a play.”
“That’s a big part of playmaking—being able to hold onto the puck a little bit until guys get open,” he added.
Despite making a lot of progress on improving his puck possession game, O’Neill indicated that it was the part of his game that he’s focused on going forward. But he also indicated that it was a priority area for all players.
“I think everyone can improve in puck protection,” he stressed. “Not everyone is going to be a Patrick Kane, or a Joe Thornton, or an Anze Kopitar, but you can always work on that. That’s the biggest part. It’s a puck possession game now. If you look at the teams who’ve had success—L.A. has had a ton of success, Chicago has had a ton of success—those teams possess the puck, and they don’t really give it up.”
“I think that’s the biggest area everyone works on, especially as a forward in our organization,” he added. “You’ve got to be able to protect the puck. If you can’t protect the puck, you’re not going to be able to play.”
Blake indicated that one of the challenges O’Neill has had to overcome is the injury bug, after missing considerable time in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons.
“He’s dealt with a few injuries the past couple of years—they’ve sidelined him for an extended period of time, and I don’t know if we got to see a full season out of him,” Blake observed. “Even [this past season], he had a little injury halfway through where he missed a little bit of time. But he’s come a long way. He’s a little bit of a late bloomer, coming out of college, but now, he’s established himself at the AHL level as a top player there.”
“He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Blake added. “We said, ‘you’ve got to go down and be healthy for the year,’ and he did that. We said, ‘at your level down there, you have to dominate the American league,’ and he was able to do that.”
Blake indicated that O’Neill’s game could translate to the NHL level.
“Any time you’re the best player in the American league, you have the ability, the skill and the [desire] to play in the NHL,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between the American league and the National Hockey League. But I think that when you’re a top player at that level, that transfers over to the NHL level.”
“That’s part of what you see on the ice from him—that competitive nature,” he added. “He’s been able to do that at all levels. He continued to do that in the American Hockey League, and I don’t see why he wouldn’t continue to do that in the National Hockey League, whenever he gets that chance.”
“He’s still got a long ways to go. He’s understanding the game, and he’s been very, very effective offensively.”
Heading into the Kings’ 2016 training camp, like all prospects, the 27-year-old O’Neill hopes to make the big club’s roster. However, one look at the Kings’ depth chart indicates that the Kings do not have room for him on their 2015-15 opening night roster.
Barring a trade, the Kings would have to place O’Neill on waivers before assigning him to the AHL’s Ontario Reign. Even though he cleared waivers before being assigned to the Monarchs to start the 2014-15 season, there is no guarantee that O’Neill will clear waivers this time around—he could be claimed off of waivers by another NHL team
“He’s MVP of the American Hockey League,” Blake noted. “I’m sure that not just our eyes are open to him, but I think [the eyes] of 29 other teams are open to him, too.”
In spite of that, the possibility that his road to the NHL might not run through Los Angeles is not something O’Neill is focused on.
“It’s not something I really think about too much, because it’s so far away,” he said. “A lot of things are going to happen. All I can control is what I do in training camp. Hopefully, that’ll be good enough. If it’s not, you go from there, and you get better, so that’s not something that motivates me.”
“I just want to continue to get better, and hopefully, everything else will take care of itself.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Rob Blake (4:42)
Frozen Royalty’s 2015 Off-Season LA Kings Prospects Coverage
- LA Kings LW Prospect Michael Mersch Is Powering His Way Towards The NHL
- LA Kings’ Rob Blake On Jordan Weal: “There’s Not A Lot of Players Like That Around”
- From Doubts To Dominating: LA Kings F Prospect Jordan Weal Has Risen To The Top Of The AHL
- LA Kings G Prospect J.F. Berube Is Pushing For Job With The Big Club In 2015-16
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