A LITTLE HUSTLE goes a long way.
That’s the name of the game for Manchester Monarchs winger Brian O’Neill. The 5-foot-8, 165-pound O’Neill isn’t going to intimidate anyone with his build. But like so many smaller players, O’Neill makes up for his lack of size with deadly speed and a willingness to play every shift at 100 percent effort.
“I think when you’re a smaller guy, under 5-10, 5-11 and you’re not extremely skilled you’ve got to contribute other ways and the best way to do that is to work hard and then good things will happen and it sets a good example for the young guys,” O’Neill said. “If I’m moving my feet and working hard I’m going to get scoring chances. Everything else falls into place from there, but it starts with work ethic.”
A four-year standout at Yale University from 2008-2012, O’Neill put up big numbers with the Bulldogs. In 138 games (a school record), O’Neill scored 69 goals and 91 assists for 160 points, never playing in fewer than 33 games.
O’Neill signed an entry level contract with Los Angeles right out of college, finishing the 2012 season with Manchester and playing in 12 games, recording a goal and an assist. Last season was his first full year in the AHL and despite showing promise, O’Neill struggled offensively and posted just three goals and 12 assists in 49 games.
This season, O’Neill’s comfort level with the pro game is evident. In 27 games so far (O’Neill missed 14 games with a hand injury) he has already equaled last season’s 15 points with nine goals and six assists.
“It’s going better than it did last year, obviously. Your second year in the league everything is easier and you’re acclimated to the style of play,” O’Neill said. “You get used to the systems, which is a big thing and you’re playing with really good players. L.A. has a really deep pool of prospects, which helps. Any line you’re going to play on you’re going to be playing with really skilled players, which is going to help your scoring opportunities. I’ve been fortunate to get a couple in this year and hopefully that will continue.”
The coaching staff in Manchester has certainly noticed the change in O’Neill’s game.
“Last year he had a whale of a time scoring goals for us. He got a lot of great opportunities. This year, he’s developed a scoring touch and he’s back to making plays the way he did when he played for Yale,” Monarchs head coach Mark Morris said. “He’s a mature guy and obviously commands the respect of his teammates and he’s part of the leadership group that we lean on from time to time.”
At 25 years old, O’Neill’s leadership has come to the forefront this season and he was rewarded with the alternate captain’s letter “A” on his jersey for two games when Andrew Bodnarchuk was out of the lineup.
“It’s nice that the coaching staff asks you to wear the ‘A’ and set a good example and be responsible on the ice. I think that’s the biggest thing when you’re wearing it,” O’Neill said. “We have a lot of leaders on this team and you don’t need an ‘A’ on your jersey to be a leader, but when you have it, you know you need to tighten up in the defensive zone and be a worker out there.”
Being a worker has never been an issue for O’Neill, a Yardley, Pa., native who has teamed with fellow speedster Sean Backman to nice effect for Manchester this year. O’Neill’s hustle and speed translates to quick transition offense out of aggressive forechecking.
“He’s got great balance and tremendous speed and it’s fun to watch he and Backman when they’re playing their game,” Morris said. “They put a lot of pressure on the opposing defenders when they turn it on wide. That’s a great thing to create offense and to keep the opposition back on their heels.”
ROAD TRIP: The Monarchs will head out for a long road trip, but it’s only to one destination. Manchester plays at St. John’s, Newfoundland against the IceCaps for three games, on Friday, Saturday and Monday.
Manchester remains in first place in the Atlantic Division (and atop the AHL overall) with a record of 25-10-6 for 56 points. St. John’s (19-15-3 for 41 points) sits in third place in the Atlantic.
Following the long trip, Manchester will host Worcester next Friday and then Portland the following night.
Ian Clark covers pro hockey for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.