When the Chicago Blackhawks stepped away from the 2011 NHL Entry Draft’s first round, they did so adding two strong prospects to their farm system in Mark McNeill, picked at No. 18, and Phillip Danault, picked at No. 26. McNeill came into the draft after a very impressive season for the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, posting 81 points in 70 games during the 2010-11 season.
As a big-bodied forward with a demonstrated scoring touch, there was plenty of reason for the Blackhawks brass and fans alike to be excited about his potential as someone the team could develop into a good player at the NHL level.
However, things haven’t quite gone as most would hope for McNeill. In three seasons with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs, McNeill has failed to show the skill and potential that would be expected from a former first-round pick. He hasn’t been bad by any means, just not at the level you’d expect from a player with his pedigree.
Still, to his credit, McNeill has consistently improved his production at the AHL level. He has posted back-to-back 20-goal, 40-point seasons for the Hogs, and put up career highs of 25 goals and 28 points last season in 64 contests. He also served as an alternate captain.
McNeill didn’t see any NHL experience at all during his first two seasons in Rockford, though. When he was finally called up last season to make his NHL debut, it was just a one-game stint immediately prior to the All-Star Game before he was sent back down to the Hogs.
Now that McNeill is three years removed from signing his fist NHL contract, he’s now required to pass through waivers in order to be assigned to Rockford this season. That means that the Blackhawks are required to give him a shot at the big club, or they will risk losing him for nothing by assigning him to Rockford. That seems like pretty good motivation to at least give a guy his shot.
For more reasons than just the waivers, though, it’s now time for the Blackhawks to give McNeill a real opportunity to prove he wasn’t a wasted pick.
Despite the fact that he hasn’t been particularly impressive yet in his career, there is something to be said for McNeill’s consistent improvement from year-to-year for the Hogs. After posting 37 points in 78 games in his first professional season of 2013-14, McNeill improved to 44 points in 63 games in 2014-15, and then again to the aforementioned 48 points in 64 contests in 2015-16.
That ability to constantly improve his production despite sure frustration at seeing other players get chances with the Blackhawks while he was not is both commendable and impressive. Moreover, that constant increase in production gives reason to believe that he could turn out to be a fine contributor at the NHL level, even if it’s just as a bottom-six scorer.
But the fact that McNeill has not yet had a real shot at the NHL level four years after being drafted makes it hard to peg him down.
Of course, not every first-round draft pick is going to turn out to be a superstar, and pedigree doesn’t guarantee playing time. But McNeill is also the only first-round pick from Stan Bowman’s first three drafts that hasn’t earned a real shot in the NHL, even if not for the Blackhawks. It would be a clear statement from the team to let him hit waivers and potentially lose him for nothing without ever giving him an extended stint in Chicago.
Teams obviously do not want to be wasting first-round picks on players that turn out to be busts. The Blackhawks saw far too much of this during Dale Tallon’s reign as GM, from Jack Skille to Kyle Beach. While it still may be too soon to call McNeill a waste or bust, the time for patience with him is running thin.
It’s time for the Blackhawks to give McNeill a real shot at the main roster this fall, with an extended look and no rush decisions. He needs to play at least 15-25 games at the NHL level early in the year to allow the Blackhawks a real chance to evaluate what he can bring to the team. If he finds a groove, keep him around and see if you can’t develop that scoring ability he showed at lower levels a bit more. If he still doesn’t look like he belongs at the NHL level, you can just let him hit waivers a few weeks later.