ORONO, Maine — University of Maine defenseman Will O’Neill had a productive freshman season a year ago.
Not only did he become a regular, he was also used on the special teams and finished as the Black Bears’ second-leading point-producer among defensemen with 16 points on four goals and 12 assists in 34 games.
Three of his goals came on the power play.
This season, he already has five goals and 19 assists in 28 games entering this weekend’s crucial Hockey East home series with UMass Lowell.
He is second in points among Hockey East’s defensemen behind New Hampshire’s Blake Kessel, who has 30 points.
O’Neill is one of the point men on the nation’s best power play and has 4 & 14 with the man-advantage.
“He’s a great hockey player,” said UMass Lowell coach Blaise MacDonald. “He jumps into the play appropriately and can deliver the puck to the net.”
“Will has really emerged for us as an elite defenseman, particularly on the offensive side,” said Maine coach Tim Whitehead. “He continues to work hard at his defensive game to become more of a complete player. He trains real hard and is passionate about the game. He’s often the first guy on the ice and the last guy off.”
“It’s nice to be contributing to a good team,” said the 6-foot-1, 190-pound O’Neill. “What has been most impressive has been our power play. Being on the power play is an honor. The fact we’re doing so well on it is important to me and to the rest of the guys. It’s a credit to all the other guys, too.”
O’Neill said his rookie season was an eye-opener.
“I learned how hard this league is night in and night out,” said O’Neill, a seventh-round draft choice of the Atlanta Thrashers. “You can’t take a night off. There aren’t any easy nights.”
He also discovered that there are times to make plays and times when you have to settle for simply getting the puck out of the defensive zone.
“I’d get in trouble trying to be assertive with the puck. I wasn’t satisfied with just chipping it out of the zone. Now I’ve learned when to skate it out of the zone and when to chip it out,” said O’Neill.
“He has really taken more to the defensive side and is a great defender now,” said junior assistant captain Jeff Dimmen, O’Neill’s defense partner. “His poise with the puck is unbelievable. He makes great plays out there. He’s more confident, all-around, and he’s more assertive.”
O’Neill has good instincts according to Whitehead and it’s easy to see why.
His father, Bill O’Neill, was a defenseman for the NCAA champion Boston University Terriers in 1978 and is currently in his 28th season as the head hockey coach at Salem State College (Mass.).
Boston University coach Jack Parker, who coached Bill O’Neill, said father and son are opposites on the ice.
“Bill was a fabulous defensive defenseman. He was very strong on his skates and real physical,” said Parker. “Will’s game is offensive. He has good hands and he sees the game really well. He’s real good on the power play and can really shoot it. He’s a terrific offensive defenseman.”
O’Neill said his father is his personal coach.
“He watches every game online if he can’t be there. He knows me inside and out,” he said. “He knows how I think. It’s special for me to have him. He critiques my game and is a rock for me.”
O’Neill has been happy with the season to date but he said he “isn’t satisfied.”
Maine is in third place and battling for a top four spot and home ice for the Hockey East quarterfinals.
Four of their final six games are at home where they are 9-2-1 including six straight wins.
“We need to take advantage of our home ice,” said O’Neill. “When we play at this rink, we’re a different team. We’ve done unbelievably well. We need to be excited. We know the ins and outs of this rink so, hopefully, we’ll get a bounce here and there.
“We’ve got to work hard and if we do that and take advantage of the crowd, we can be successful” said O’Neill.