The way Will O’Neill sees it, for any hockey player to be successful it’s a two-way street. It takes coaches and players working together to bring out the best in everyone.
“Opportunity and trust have a lot to do with how a player can produce. I’m eager to get back to that,” he said.
That’s why O’Neill is excited to return to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins after spending the last two seasons with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. In his lone season with the Penguins in 2015-16, the defenseman amassed a career-high 50 points and was named to the AHL All-Star team.
That success was made possible, he said, because of the trust the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coaches had in him. With the Penguins, O’Neill was a mainstay on the power play and was used in key situations throughout the game.
That opportunity is something O’Neill didn’t think he had with the Phantoms, despite earning his first NHL game with the Flyers on Nov. 2. But O’Neill didn’t play in any of Lehigh Valley’s 13 playoff games last season, one reason why he feels he didn’t get a good opportunity with the Phantoms.
“I don’t think I did. I never thought the opportunity arose for me there,’ said O’Neill, who scored 19 points in 59 games last season. “What I had in production was a credit to me with the amount I played and the situations I was used in.”
O’Neill returns to the Penguins on an AHL deal and he’s anxious to be re-united with head coach Clark Donatelli, a coach he says has shown trust in him in the past.
“There’s a comfort level that you just feel. You go into a meeting and a coach makes you feel comfortable,” O’Neill said. “Clark Donatelli gave me a great opportunity. He trusted me.”
Entering his seventh season, O’Neill, 30, has established himself as a defenseman with a penchant for producing offense. His 50 points in 2015-16 ranked third on the Penguins, behind Carter Rowney (56) and Tom Kostopoulos (52). Four of O’Neill’s eight goals that season came on the power play, and he doesn’t hide the fact that contributing offensively is the style he enjoys most.
“I was a go-to guy and I took advantage of it,” O’Neill said of his season with the Penguins. “Live with me and die with me, and it will all come out well.”
Now that he’ll be donning a Penguins uniform again this season, O’Neill is looking forward to facing the Phantoms. A rivalry game, he said, is when his true colors show.
But as much as O’Neill is looking forward to seeing his Lehigh Valley teammates, he’s equally excited to be a part of the Penguins-Hershey rivalry again.
“That is more of a rivalry game in that division. The roots are that much deeper,” O’Neill said.
And after not seeing any playoff action for the last two seasons, O’Neill is eager to get back to playing postseason hockey. That’s a big reason why he signed with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
In fact, O’Neill’s favorite memory as a Penguin was Game 6 of the series against Hershey in which Wilkes-Barre/Scranton won, 6-2. O’Neill scored a goal in the first period and got into a fight with Nathan Walker in the third period, following a dust-up between Tom Sestito and Hershey’s Liam O’Brien.
“Sestito got the boys going, beat someone up and we all got into the mix,” O’Neill said. “That’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton hockey.”
Reach Tom Venesky at 570-991-6395 or on Twitter @TomVenesky