The last time Will O’Neill played with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins — during the 2015-16 season — he finished tied for second on the team with 20 power play points.
That’s a big reason why the 30-year-old defenseman was brought back to the Penguins after a two-year hiatus with Lehigh Valley.
Last year’s Penguin squad struggled mightily on the power play, converting at 13.8 percent — good for second-to-last in the league. In the postseason, the Penguins scored on the power play just once in seven opportunities while being swept by the Charlotte Checkers.
It was clear that the power play was a factor behind the early playoff exit, and the Penguins re-tooled this season’s roster so the man advantage isn’t a liability.
In addition to O’Neill, the Penguins also signed blueliner Stefan Elliott, who once scored 13 power play goals while playing with Cleveland in 2014-15. They also brought in veteran forward Jimmy Hayes, who at 6-5, 210 pounds can wreak havoc in front of the net. The same attribute is expected of captain Garrett Wilson, and the formula for this season’s power play is simple.
“We want to get a lot of shots through with a couple of big guys in front,” said head coach Clark Donatelli. “Last year was last year. This year is a clean slate.”
Wilson, who scored four power play goals last season, said last year’s poor production wasn’t a reflection of assistant coach Tim Army, who was in charge of the power play and has since departed to take over as head coach with the Iowa Wild.
The blame, according to Wilson, falls on the players.
“We just didn’t get it done for (Army). This year is a fresh start for the power play and we want to get things rolling early because a lot of it has to do with confidence and momentum,” Wilson said.
For his part, O’Neill is well aware that he was brought in partly to help turn the power play around. It’s a responsibility that he meagerly embraces.
“(Donatelli) has shown trust in me in the past to know I can get the puck through and down to those big, skilled forwards up front,” O’Neill said. “It’s similar to when (Tom Kostopoulos) was here. When those guys get in front of the net, all it takes is a shot to hit a stick, a leg and it goes in.”
Still, O’Neill isn’t over-thinking the process required for a successful power play. The approach this season is similar to when he was with the Penguins three years ago, aside from a couple of minor changes on the breakout.
“When we get it all sorted out, the main idea is to put pucks on the net,” O’Neill said. “If I have a lane, I’m going to try to put it there.”