(We've finally reached the top 10 in our ranking of the Hawks' best players under 25 years old! From here on out, we'll be doing individual posts for each player, starting today with Mark McNeill at No. 10. For the first 15 names in the rankings, here are the posts on Nos. 11-15, Nos. 16-20 and Nos. 21-25.)
For a former first-round pick with two-plus years of AHL experience under his belt, Mark McNeill is a surprisingly difficult prospect to evaluate. The strength and skill in his game are apparent when watching him long enough. The pedigree is there, and the AHL stats, too. Even so, it's hard to peg exactly how much of that success McNeill can translate to the NHL.
Part of what makes McNeill's game encouraging is his solid defensive acumen. He's played significant penalty kill minutes with the IceHogs, shows a willingness to block shots with his body and doesn't shy away from getting physical. Given how familiar we've become with Joel Quenneville refusing to ice young players who may not be ready for their defensive responsibilities, it's been a positive to see McNeill work hard at improving that side of his game.
As a scorer, McNeill is also an intriguing option. The 22-year-old already has the frame to be a net presence and as Chris Block noted in January, the team has encouraged him to crash the net more often. You can easily envision a future where McNeill has settled in on the third line as a steady two-way forward who can play a little defense, make things hard for goaltenders in front of the pipes and fire off a nice shot every once in a while. In fact, he might be close to ready for that kind of performance now.
The problem with McNeill is that he's not spectacular in any area, and at his age, he's running out of time to show there's another gear. Numerous other forward have already passed him on the organizational depth chart, it seems, and management's willingness to keep adding alternative options like Kyle Baun, Tanner Kero and Ryan Haggerty doesn't scream confidence. It's possible McNeill finds himself in a sort of hockey limbo not unlike another player who's bounced around in his mid-20s, Jeremy Morin.
During the 2014-15 season with Rockford, McNeill recorded 44 points (23 goals, 21 assists) in 63 regular season games, then added another four points (two goals, two assists) in eight playoff games. The previous year -- his first in the AHL -- McNeill had 37 points (18 goals, 19 assists) in 76 games. An increase in points per game from 0.49 to 0.70 is encouraging. The question is whether it's enough to make him more than a fringe player whose value stems partially from being affordable.
Luckily we should know a bit more about McNeill's status with the organization by the end of the season. Competing with so many other players for ice time, it would be a strong sign for McNeill's future if he's able to beat out all those guys and earn a spot for opening day. On the other hand, the longer he toils in Rockford and fails to break through at the next level, the easier it becomes to wonder whether it'll ever happen at all.
McNeill's closing in on the time to be "NHL-ready" and show whether he can crack it in the world's best hockey league. For now, he's No. 10 on our list of the Hawks' best players under 25.
Position: Right wing
Birth date: Feb. 22, 1993 (age 22)
Acquired via: First round (No. 18 overall) in 2011 NHL Entry Draft
Most recent stop: Rockford IceHogs (AHL)
Size: 6'2, 214 pounds
Contract: Entry-level; $863,333 cap hit for 2015-16; RFA in 2016