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Sports

July 2, 2014

Salem's O'Neill enjoys breakout AHL playoffs, eyes free agency

(Continued)

Underrated defensively

Last year’s results with St. John’s, and the one-way AHL deal he had, drove O’Neill to better himself last offseason. He added strength and power with Mike Boyle, who trains a host of NHL players and US Olympians, and also skated with local pros at Boston University.

The 6-foot-1, 205-pound O’Neill saw results on the ice. As a rookie in 2012-13, he had three goals and 21 points in 59 games; this past regular season those numbers rose to nine goals, 36 points and 80 penalty minutes. He was also more a mainstay in the St. John’s lineup with 68 games played.

“I knew the organization liked me and they showed me they wanted me back. I came in ready to prove some things and hoping to turn some heads,” O’Neill said. “I did have a slow start, but as I got going my conditioning level and skill levels showed, and I was able to play pretty well from the middle of the season to playoffs.”

The son of Salem State hockey coach Bill O’Neill, Will turned 26 in April. He still gets advice from his dad and older brother Andrew, who watch St. John’s games over the internet as often as they can.

In college at the University of Maine, O’Neill was an offensive force and became one of a handful of defensemen in Black Bear history to have 100 career points. He prides himself on his defense as well, and to that end his plus-minus rating rose from minus-21 as a first-year pro to plus-6 this past season. (He was also second in scoring among St. John’s D-men).

“Your game can fall to pieces if you worry too much about scoring and making highlight plays,” O’Neill said. “I really want to be a sound defender first, and in some ways I think I can be underrated defensively. When I’m making good reads and playing strong in my end, that’s what gives me confidence to go the other way and transition pucks.”

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