Blackhawks prospect Mark McNeill waiting for first chance in NHL

ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Chicago Blackhawks forward prospect Mark McNeill probably gets his first NHL call-up if he remains healthy for another week or two in November.

McNeill had been on roll for the AHL's Rockford IceHogs in the season’s first 14 games. He had produced nine goals and seven assists. But then his season was knocked off its tracks when he suffered a knee injury while blocking a shot on Nov. 15. Just as McNeill went down, the Blackhawks were dealing with their own injury issues and shuffling their lineup. Luck wasn't on his side.

“He had an unfortunate injury at a time when we were making some changes in our roster, calling some guys up,” Blackhawks assistant general manager Norm Maciver said recently. “He blocked a shot in a game against Milwaukee, and he was out for four weeks. Prior to that, that line of [Garret] Ross, [Philip] Danault and McNeill had been exceptional. Mark was a big part of that.”

McNeill is still waiting on his first NHL call-up, but his missed chance in November doesn’t bother him. He remains confident his time will come, and he’s planning for a long NHL career once it does.

“I got injured. That’s just the way it is," said the 22-year-old McNeill, a Blackhawks’ 2011 first-round draft choice. "Now it’s behind me. I still got to keep working toward that first call-up.

“I’m hungry. I want the opportunity. But nothing is going to be handed to me. I got to work for everything. That’s a goal of mine I’m still excited to achieve.”

McNeill’s injury not only impacted his NHL opportunity, but also his game. He sat out a month due to the injury and didn’t immediately return to form. He had five goals and four assists in his first 26 games back from the injury. He finally got into a groove again in late February and has had six goals and five assists in the last 13 games.

The Blackhawks have liked the way McNeill, a right winger, has progressed in his second full professional season. What they especially asked of him this season was to play the same from shift to shift. His play varied too much last season.

“I think the biggest thing with Mark is the consistency,” Maciver said. “It’s’ more shift-in and shift-out. When you have that kind of size and skating ability, the expectation now is you want to see that shift-in and shift-out, game in and game out, and that’s where he’s getting to. He’s probably not quite there yet, but he’s pretty getting close to that. He’s had a very, very solid season.”

McNeill addressed his consistency by watching more video and also working to keep his mind on-point between shifts.

Aside from consistency, IceHogs coach Ted Dent has noticed McNeill become a more dangerous offensive player. Being 6-foot-2 and 218 pounds, McNeill has a size advantage, but it’s been a process on how to utilize it better.

“I’ve just seen more confidence in his ability, especially offensive with the puck,” said. “He uses his speed a lot more this year. I think wide speed going down on defensemen. You know he winds it up and he gets going and he’s tough to stop because he’s a big man and he can skate. When he gets going around the other team’s defensemen, he’s not an easy guy to take down. I’ve seen a confidence in his skating and his ability to make plays with the puck.”

McNeill hopes continuing to do that will eventually earn him a place in the NHL. With the Blackhawks likely having to make a move or two from their current in the upcoming offseason to alleviate their salary cap situation, a spot could open up for McNeill. His focus isn’t on the future now, though.

“You can look ahead like that,” McNeill said. “You can make assumptions on what they’re going to do. But at the end of the day, I’m just playing hockey right here in Rockford. Day by day, game by game, trying to get better, trying to help my team, and I’ll worry about that when the time comes.”