There aren’t many things in sports that match the intensity and energy of playoff hockey, an atmosphere in which some players thrive and others wilt.
Going back to his days in junior hockey, it has always brought out the best in Salem’s Will O’Neill.
This spring, the 26-year-old defenseman had an outstanding playoff run with the St. John’s Ice Caps, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Winnipeg Jets.
O’Neill led the Calder Cup playoffs in playoff scoring by a defenseman with 16 points on three goals and 13 assists. His 13 assists tied for the AHL playoff lead, and the 16 points were fourth among all skaters as the Ice Caps fell to the Texas Stars in five games in the championship series.
“Playoffs are elevated from the regular season, there’s no doubt about that,” said O’Neill, who made the nearly 30-hour drive home to the North Shore from St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada last week.
“Every shift, every game, every pass, every mistake is quicker, faster and more physical. If you can play when the stakes are that high, you can play any time. It was important for me to get confidence in that.”
A year ago, O’Neill wasn’t tendered as a restricted free agent by the Jets, who drafted him when they were still based out of Atlanta back in 2006. He then signed a one-year AHL deal and goes into this summer as an unrestricted free agent.
O’Neill is free to sign with any club, either directly with the AHL affiliate or more likely on a two-way contract that could include an invitation to an NHL training camp.
“I’m hoping I’ll have a new deal in the next couple of weeks. It’s an exciting time for me, really,” said O’Neill. “I think with St. John’s and Winnipeg, I have a great relationship with both their front offices and staffs, for sure great teammates and we just had an awesome run. If things work out that would be terrific, but I’ll be all ears to see if other teams are interested.”