ALBANY, NY — Last season, Brian O’Neill was the AHL’s MVP on a Calder Cup winning team in Manchester.
Now, halfway through the season, he is back in the AHL trying to find the form that got him in the New Jersey Devils opening night lineup to start the 2015-16 campaign.
After four seasons in the Los Angeles Kings organization, O’Neill was traded to the Devils on the eve of the 2015-16 season. Immediately, he cracked the NHL roster for the first time in his career.
The adjustment to the Devils was a tough one, but it was one O’Neill took in stride and was thrilled to make.
“Knowing that I was going to be in the NHL to start off the year made it pretty special,” O’Neill said. “The biggest adjustment was just getting comfortable in a different league. It’s for sure a step up.”
O’Neill played the first 22 games of the season for New Jersey before being loaned to Albany in December. After 80 points for the Monarchs last season, O’Neill registered just two assists during his first NHL stint this year.
The numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“He was brought in and used more as an energy guy,” said Head Coach Rick Kowalsky. “He has that ability. He was in a different role at the NHL level.”
O’Neill agrees with his coach’s assessment.
“I think a lot of guys who are similar rely on putting up points and rarely having a backup game,” he said. “I take pride in having a backup game. If you need to play in different roles or energy lines, playing up and down the lineup. I think that’s my biggest asset.”
Another asset O’Neill brings to the team is experience. He was one of the centerpieces of the Calder Cup winning Monarchs last season, scoring 10 goals and adding 10 assists. It’s an accomplishment few players can lay claim to, and O’Neill believes he is better off because of it.
“Everyone keeps throwing out the word experience as you go around your hockey career and how valuable it is,” he said. “It really is, especially three or four years into the league, having a little bit of success into the postseason. You can always fall back on that.”
Coming into this season, O’Neill knew making the Kings NHL roster was going to be a tough task, so he set out to be in the best physical shape possible after the short offseason.
“It’s tough to crack that lineup,” he said. “Especially when they’re not rebuilding, they just reload every year.”
Even though he didn’t fit in the Kings lineup, he is fitting right in with his new teammates in Albany and the offense is coming also.
In nine games, O’Neill has scored three goals and added four assists for seven points. In his last game, he scored a goal and added an assist as the Devils defeated Rochester, 4-0, Wednesday.
“I think he’s starting to find some chemistry with some guys here and he’s able to create a lot of offensive chances by his ability, but also by the way he competes,” Kowalsky said.
To get back to the NHL, O’Neill and Kowalsky agree there are some improvements to be made.
“For him to be an everyday NHL player, he’s going to have to focus on his play without the puck and making sure he’s winning more battles,” Kowalsky said. “He knows the importance of all those little things and he’s got to continue to make sure that those are a priority in his game.”
“I look at it as you’ve got to have an all around game and be ready when you get back up there,” O’Neill said. “Making sure you’re focused on the fundamentals and making sure when you get back there you will have the trust of the coaches.”
Currently, the Devils are riding an 11-game home winning streak at Times Union Center. They have won seven of their past eight overall games.
The key to the Devils recent success may be the system, which is virtually identical to the one used in New Jersey.
“I think you look at the structure that Coach [John] Hynes brought up in New Jersey. The structure has been really consistent,” O’Neill said. “The structure has to be in place to win on a consistent basis. If the structure is not there, you won’t win on a consistent basis.”
O’Neill and the Devils will look to stay red hot when they travel to Providence to play the Bruins on Friday night.