It’s too early to call Mark McNeill a bust. He’s still only 23 years old and is coming off a pretty good season in the AHL. Players in his position have bloomed late and found their place in the NHL.
But that’s the path McNeill is on right now. Drafted with the No. 18 overall pick in the 2011 NHL Draft, McNeill found himself clearing waivers five years later. Not only was McNeill unable to earn a spot on the Hawks’ roster out of training camp, but his stock has dipped to the point that the other 29 teams weren’t interested in taking a flier with practically zero risk.
That’s where McNeill is at — on the fringe, passed over once again, this time in favor of younger, less experienced players like Nick Schmaltz, Tyler Motte, Vincent Hinostroza and Ryan Hartman. The problem for McNeill, though, is that it’s been hard to argue he’s better than any of them. His case for making the team was almost always based on the possibility of losing him on waivers, which clearly wasn’t a major concern in the end.
It’s hard to say where McNeill’s career goes from here. He might’ve deserved a shot this fall, but as we’ve learned many times, the Hawks aren’t here to exhibit patience. McNeill never showed that he’d be able to make an immediate impact at the NHL level. Chicago has never figured out a role for him.
But the opportunities were there. Brandon Mashinter, Phillip Danault, Dennis Rasmussen and others have gotten looks that could’ve gone to McNeill. Now, he’s been definitively passed on the depth chart by numerous other young forwards. Who knows whether the Hawks might try, say, Luke Johnson before giving McNeill another look.
McNeill does deserve some credit here, because he’s consistently gone to work and performed in the AHL. He’s never complained about his lack of chances, which we can’t necessarily say for every young player to pass through. But with the next generation arriving, not to mention a breakout addition to the system like Alexandre Fortin, it’s getting harder to figure out where McNeill fits.
He might just end up being AHL depth in the end. For a No. 18 overall pick, that would be a disappointing result.