Prospect McNeill finishes first year strong

Mark McNeill had stretches during his first full professional season where he impressed people within the Chicago Blackhawks organization.

That result was expected from McNeill, a 2011 first-round pick who had played well at the junior level for the past few seasons.

But what especially caught some people’s eyes was his play late this past season. It was then he showed a willingness to do whatever he had to help the Rockford IceHogs into the playoffs.

“Defensively and on the penalty kill in the last five minutes of games, he was one of the forwards we relied on to block shots and lay down,” IceHogs coach Ted Dent said in a recent phone interview. “He had a commitment to winning. That showed signs of maturity, showed me signs of being an all-around player. It’s hard to teach these young players the sacrifice, the two-way game you have to have. He made a lot of strides in that respect.”

Blackhawks director of hockey administration and general manager of minor league affiliations Mark Bernard said nearly the same things about McNeill.

“He took pride in penalty-killing the last six weeks,” Bernard said in a recent phone interview. “He’d have ice bags all over him, laying down to block shots. He really wanted to pay the price for his team’s success.”

McNeill also bought into switching from center to right wing this past season. With his size (6-2, 218 pounds) and skill set, the Blackhawks are hopeful McNeill can flourish down the road just as he did at times this past season. He finished the season with 18 goals and 19 assists in 76 games.

“Mark is a big, strong guy,” Bernard said. “If he can utilize that size, get wide to the net, there aren’t a lot of defensemen who can hold him off. He’s a big powerful player. He plays physical and has a quick shot release. I really liked Mark’s season as it went along. To have 18 goals in the American League, there’s nothing wrong with that.

“As I told Mark at the end of the year, he has to start the season the way he finished. I can preach to Joel [Quenneville,] Stan [Bowman,] but he has to show them in training camp. He has to come into training camp and show them the player he has become.”

Dent thought the 21-year-old McNeill got off to a strong start in his professional career. He looked forward to working with McNeill again next season.

“There are still some areas he has to improve -- playing bigger, taking puck to net harder, puck protection and size,” Dent said. “That stuff will all come.”