Reid McNeill wasn’t a familiar face with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins this season. He spent a few weeks with the team in training camp, came back for a game in February and two more a the end of the season.
But all of a sudden - after spending the majority of his first pro season with Wheeling in the East Coast Hockey League - McNeill has become a familiar face in the Penguins playoff run.
Head coach John Hynes gave the 21-year-old rookie defenseman regular ice time in all three games of the Binghamton series. McNeill responded with poise - playing a physical, shutdown role with few mistakes.
He played like a familiar face, and it was actually the time that McNeill spent away from the team that helped him the most.
Hynes said McNeill logged a ton of minutes while spending the season in Wheeling, and that gave him confidence when he joined the Penguins for the postseason.
“Wheeling was a real positive experience for Reid and he’s a fine example of a guy that took the situation for what it was, worked hard, was well-coached there and stayed ready to come up,” Hynes said. “The Reid McNeill we got later in the season was one that was prepared and battle-tested with playing against older guys.”
McNeill was drafted by Pittsburgh in the sixth round of the 2010 NHL draft. Before this season, he spent the last three years in juniors establishing himself as a physical defenseman who was solid in his own zone.
The same thing could be said of McNeill now after his first three playoff games. While he’s shown plenty of poise in each, McNeill admits he needed to make a quick adjustment at first.
“I felt like my first period in the first game against Binghamton was a little overwhelming,” he said. “I kind of psyched myself up too much. But the players just told me to play my game and keep it simple, and I’ve been feeling more comfortable ever since.”
Another aspect that’s helped is the practice time that McNeill has logged with the Penguins this season. He was already familiar with the system after spending the season in Wheeling, and the practices helped him adjust to new teammates at a new level.
“The coaches and the team here have been showing great confidence in me. It really makes it easier to go out there knowing your team is confident in you,” McNeill said.
And it also helps to have a bit of patience. The NHL lockout and glut of defensemen in the organization forced McNeill down to Wheeling early in the year, and he said it would’ve been easy to view the situation negatively.
Instead, McNeill took advantage of the plentiful ice time in Wheeling and made the most of it.
“I played a ton and learned a lot about myself as a player,” McNeill said. “It’s been a long year, but I’ve learned a ton.”
- The Penguins held off-ice workouts at Coal Street on Monday and will resume on-ice practice today. With more than a week between games, Hynes said it’s important to keep his players fresh during the long layoff. That means avoiding burning them out with too much time on the ice, he said.
“Games drive the players at this point in the year, and when you get lulls in the schedule like we have now, you want to make sure they’re not dreading coming to the rink,” Hynes said. “You can overload them. The most important thing is to manage their energy and manage their mind so they’re always energized.”
Needless to say, the players enjoy the time off, but wouldn’t mind seeing some game action soon.
“It’s definitely the longest layoff of my pro career,” said winger Riley Holzapfel. “It was nice to sweep the first series and finish early, but at the same time we haven’t played a game in a week.”