Grant McNeill is beginning to get used to the unexpected.
While his transition to the professional ranks has gone smoothly, McNeill has experienced a few surprises in that time. He’s received an NHL call-up, gone through a brief position change and come out of a scrum facing one of the league’s top enforcers.
“It’s a dream come true,” McNeill said. “It’s something I really didn’t expect at the start of the year, but it’s a dream come true.”
McNeill hoped to contend for Florida’s enforcer role in training camp, but was among the first group of players sent to begin the season with the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League.
“They had (Darcy) Hordichuk, who’s already a big leaguer,” he said. “I thought there might be a spot for me, or at least an opportunity.”
In San Antonio, the 20-year-old flourished. Upholding his reputation as one of the WHL’s most aggressive and defensively responsible players, McNeill registered a plus-2 and a league-leading 51 penalty minutes in 13 games.
It wasn’t long thereafter Florida lost Hordichuk to a broken ankle and McNeill’s numbers caught the eye of Panthers coach and general manager Rick Dudley, who recalled him.
Along with the call-up came a brief position switch. With the Panthers stocked on blueline, Dudley moved the natural defenseman to wing on the fourth line. Sparingly used, he averaged three shifts just under three minutes of icetime per game.
“I am starting to get used to playing wing,” McNeill said. “I’m just up here to bring some energy and support the guys.”
Making adjustments to his role is nothing new. McNeill concentrated solely on defense during his first year with the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL, posting just 43 penalty minutes.
Over his final three seasons, however, McNeill adjusted to be on par with the notoriously physical league, notching no fewer than 280 penalty minutes per season. In 2000-01, the Vermillion, Alberta native led the WHL with 326 penalty minuted and captured the Raiders’ Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“I’ve always played a physical game, but fighting has just been something that has come along after a few years in juniors,” McNeill said. “It’s something I like to do now. It’s obviously part of my game and something I’ll do to get here.”
Although his aggressive style helped him earn recognition in the WHL and a roster spot in Florida, the third-round pick in 2001 used the NHL opportunity to refine his knowledge.
“It’s nice up here, having guys like Hordichuk and (Lyle) Odelein,” he said. “They’ve already been through a lot and have done it all, so they can help you out with some fine tuning. They give you tips on when to (fight), when not to. It’s always nice to have some veteran
guys like that to help. They just help you along the way — nothing too specific, just little hints.”
McNeill finally exhibited his lessons learned during the Panthers 3-3 tie with the New York Rangers on Nov. 26.
Midway through the first period, McNeill began jawing with veteran tough guy Matthew Barnaby. After several others joined the fray, McNeill came out exchanging blows with pugilist Chris Simon. Before Simon even had an opportunity to size up his opponent, the rookie
landed about six punches.
McNeill skated away from his first NHL fight sporting a blackened right eye and not a second thought about facing one of the league’s top enforcers.
“It never crossed my mind,” McNeill said when asked about facing Simon. “I didn’t even think anything of it. It’s part of the game. I don’t care who it is — it’s just my job.”
After sitting as a healthy scratch over the next two games, the Panthers chose to reassign McNeill to San Antonio. His AHL return will be welcome, as the Rampage have struggled defensively and allowed a season-high five goals in their last two games.
“We want him playing, developing and improving in San Antonio,” Dudley said. “He’s going to be an NHL player, he just needs to gain some more professional experience at the AHL level.”
Ironically, even before the reassignment, it appeared McNeill sensed he would not remain with Florida an extended period of time. But he expressed his gratitude for the opportunity.
“I think (the experience) will help me with my game,” he said. “I hope I learned something new and that gives my game a chance to develop.”
If nothing else, it has helped McNeill conquer the element of surprise.