Defenseman Reid McNeill (PIT) was not on many scouting radars as a 15 or 16-year-old. He was not selected in the OHL priority draft and played as a 16-year-old for Lucas High School, located in London, Ontario, then later JrD level hockey for the Lambeth Lancers of the OHA. Then something happened.
"I grew eight inches in a year," McNeill said, followed by a laugh.
Between the ages of 16 and 17, McNeill grew from roughly 5'6 to 6'2, and while he was playing at a low level of hockey, that did not stop the London Knights, one of the most storied franchises in OHL history, from bringing him into the fold.
"[The Hunters] are the ones that found me. They gave me the opportunity to play in a great organization. They taught me so much. The way that Pittsburgh works, it really relates down to London. They drafted Olli Maatta and Scott Harrington as well."
Harrington, another defensive defenseman and a former linemate of McNeill, echoed the sentiment.
"You hear that whenever you're a young kid in London that they kind of run it like a pro team," Harrington said, "That's just the atmosphere you get used to but then whenever you come to a pro camp you realize that it's pretty similar to how the junior teams run. So that helps."
"[The Penguins] really like the style of play in London and I credit that to Dale (Hunter)," McNeill said when asked to elaborate. "He's really a working coach. You got to work for your ice time. I learned the discipline of the game and then I was able to take that to Barrie and kind of open it up."
After a solid 2010-11 season with London, McNeill was traded to the Barrie Colts as part of a package that granted the Knights the right to select Finnish defenseman Olli Maatta first overall in the 2011 CHL Import draft. A defenseman the Penguins would later draft 22nd overall in 2012.
"It's kinda funny how things tied up," McNeill said with a smile.
For the 2011-12 season, McNeill focused in the off-season on his conditioning, athleticism, and lateral movement, but also realized with an expanded role in Barrie, he could open up his offensive game.
"Definitely my foundation is the defensive end but I'd really like to be more dangerous in the offensive end. Talking to [Alain Nasreddine], the AHL defensive coach, I really want to work on being able to get the puck on the point and being a threat on the blue line."
Playing for the Barrie Colts and head coach Dale Hawerchuk, McNeill flourished in an expanded shutdown role, and even saw some opportunities on the powerplay.
"I think Hawerchuk is a more go out and play type coach and in London with the Hunters it is really systematic. Making the transition to Hawerchuk's game, you play a little bit more and use your talent, so we weren't such a structured team, more as just skilled. Just kind of go out there and let your talent do the work."
Probably one of the greatest benefits of being traded however was the opportunity to see what kind of player he could be not playing within a rigid, systematic style like London.
"It's more of a read and react type game. I found myself in a lot of different situations where with systems I would not have been able to make the decisions I was able to make with Dale (Hawerchuk). He really opened up my game throughout the year and being the powerplay specialist he is, I got to see him work with everybody and got a read on how the offensive side of the game works."
As well as becoming a better two-way player, McNeill has continued to mature physically, and now measures at 6'4 and over 200 pounds. His aspirations have also grown greatly with him signing a NHL entry-level contract.
"Three years ago I was only 5 foot 6, so over the past couple seasons it's [growing] into my size and getting the coordination right. I [recently] turned 20 so I'm really starting to focus on filling out a bit more and being a little more stable on my feet. Now that I'm getting a little bit older, I'd like to make my mark and make the jump to pro."
"I came in as more of a bottom-feeder. Coming in as a bottom-feeder I took the brunt of some things but it made me stronger as a player. Now, making the step into pro, being in the bottom half of the [depth chart], I know what's expected of me and how to make my step towards making it to the top. It was a great experience for me."