A change of scenery can often make a world of difference.
That’s definitely what the Dallas Stars are hoping for with regards to forward Mark McNeill, the centerpiece of their return for Johnny Oduya, a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks that went through on Tuesday evening. The Stars also acquired a conditional 4th round draft choice in the move (which becomes a 3rd round selection if the Hawks make this year’s Western Conference Finals).
The 24 year-old McNeill is a big (6’2”, 214-pound), two-way forward that can play both center and right wing. He had 28 points in 58 games for the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, which put him second in team scoring. He also had a team-high 22 assists. He’s in the final year of his contract and will be a restricted free agent at season’s end.
However, getting traded for a rental veteran at the trade deadline is not likely where McNeill envisioned his future self all the way back on June 11th, 2011, the first day of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
It was that day that the Blackhawks selected McNeill in the 1st round, 18th overall. The native of Langley, British Columbia and Edmonton, Alberta was coming off of a fantastic junior season for the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders. That year he picked up 81 points in 70 games for the Raiders, as well as six points in seven games as a member of Team Canada at the 2011 IIHF U18s. The Hawks, clearly impressed, took McNeill with their highest selection, ahead of notable names like Rickard Rakell, Vladislav Namestnikov, Oscar Klefbom and Connor Murphy.
Initially projected as a player that would become a significant contributor at both ends of the ice, McNeill’s development never took off as expected. His 81 points in his draft year were the highest total that he ever accumulated in his WHL days. He put up 37, 44 and 48-point seasons for Rockford (and was, impressively, the team’s leading scorer in 2014-15), totals that are certainly respectable, but nevertheless underwhelming for a forward that was drafted so high.
The same can be said for his defensive play, which is adequate, though not especially remarkable. He can play a heavy game, but his skating ability needs work, which limits his effectiveness. For a team like the Hawks, which is incredibly front-heavy when it comes to the salary cap, it’s quite an eyebrow-raiser that McNeill, who has always been on cheap contracts, never found a role in the team’s Bottom 6. He was never even really tried there.
It’s a little concerning that McNeill currently only has one NHL game to his credit (from last season), and was passed on Chicago’s forward depth chart not just by other 1st round picks like Ryan Hartman and Nick Schmaltz, but also less-heralded prospects like Tanner Kero, Vince Hinostroza and Dennis Rasmussen.
All of this being said, it’s clear that Stars general manager Jim Nill still sees something that he likes in McNeill.
“Sometimes a change of scenery's good for somebody, so he's going to come here,” said Nill to Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News. “It's a great opportunity for him. He'll add some depth to us and we'll see where it goes."
Changes of scenery have benefited numerous other young players in the past, so it’s certainly within reason that the same thing could happen here. If the big forward can carve out a productive, two-way Bottom 6 role for himself in Dallas then the Stars will be getting an asset that’s roughly equivalent to the value of a 3rd round pick.
McNeill will now head to the AHL’s Texas Stars, where he will likely finish out the season.