Fountain of Youth: Carl Neill

Who is Carl Neill?

Selected in the 5th round, 144th overall by the Vancouver Canucks at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, Carl Neill has caught the attention of many fans with his lofty point totals. That Neill remains the only Canucks prospect in the CHL to produce at over a point per game is especially daunting given he is a defenceman. The production is encouraging, but far from all encompassing. Let’s delve deeper into the underdog story of Neill and unearth the remaining pieces to the puzzle.

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After being passed over in the 2014 NHL Entry draft, GM Jim Benning selected Neill late in the fifth round on the heels of a 14 goal, 40 point campaign in his Draft+1 season. Neill was clearly disappointed by his being glossed over in his first draft eligible season and in an interview with the QMJHL last year, suggested that he used that as a wakeup call:

“I couldn’t exactly expect any miracles (on draft day) since I didn’t have a good season last year from beginning to end. It was still really disappointing to not have heard my name called on draft day that’s for sure. When I look back though, that may have been the best thing that ever happened to me. It made me really look in the mirror,” explained Neill.

“It was all a real wake-up call. The team wasn’t shy about let me know after last season ended. I knew what I had to do and I took my offseason training more seriously than ever. I really slashed my body fat and that translated into me being faster and more mobile on the ice. It’s made all the difference in the world. I really just made to mature as a player.”

Neill was invited to Calgary’s training camp in 2014 and hoped to turn some heads, but was unable to participate due to an irregular heartbeat that was detected during physical testing. He had that fixed through surgery shortly thereafter and was able to have the breakout season he was hoping for with Sherbrooke; something which obviously caught the eye of the Canucks fans and brass alike.  

Money Puck took a look at the draft in July, and using the now extinct PCS rating, Neill looked to be a decent gamble at this point in the draft as he had almost doubled his points (22 to 40) from his first draft eligible season to his D+1 season.

Furthermore, Neill’s selection addressed the Canucks barren pool of defensive prospects. A deficiency which was made significantly worse with the trade of Adam Clendening in late July and losing Frankie Corrado for nothing in October. With that being said, Neill’s progression has been high encouraging, as he’s taken another big step offensively this season with 36 points in 35 games, which puts him on pace to shatter his previous career high.

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The majority of the Blainville, Quebec natives points have come on the powerplay, including 4 of his 5 goals. What has stuck out about his goals has been his plus shooting ability. Neill’s shots are hard and often go straight past the goalie. Here is one goal from October:

Head up the entire time and blasts it; a great sign for an offensive defenceman. Neill is also extremely aggressive on the power play, which forces some teams to lose coverage and open space for his teammates. This play on December 11 against Baie-Comeau illustrates it perfectly:

Until last week, Carl Neill and San Jose’s 2015 2nd round pick Jeremy Roy were the first pairing for Sherbrooke and played in all situations. There were some suggestions made that Roy was the one driving play for the pairing, but that doesn’t paint the full picture. They compliment each other well, with both taking turns carrying the puck out of the zone and creating offence. 

Last week, they were split up after Sherbrooke acquired defencemen Nathanael Halbert and Matthew Satoris in separate trades. In an effort to get some balance in their lineup, Neill is now playing with Sartoris during even strength situations. 

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It is still amazing that teams were likely scouting the possible first round pick Jeremy Roy, but seemed to ignore or write off Carl Neill.

The Canucks were able to use their first 5th round pick to take the gamble on the overage defenceman. Francois Carignan, who covers Sherbrooke for Q News, was nice enough to interview Carl Neill with some of my questions about his experience with the Canucks thus far, and some insight into what he is working on going forward: 

How was your NHL training camp experience?

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Great experience, I enjoyed my time out west. On the ice, I was a bit nervous out there to start, took me a bit of time to adapt. Near the end I started to play a bit better, I think it’s totally normal to be a bit nervous in your first camp. Hopefully I can bring it back next year and build on that.

What happened in camp, you had a little incident?

Before the first game, in the morning skate, I got a high stick around the net and lost a couple of teeth. Not the start you want to the camp, but a unique experience for me and it’s the way it started for me and I wouldn’t want to change it.

What was your best memory from training camp?

Playing with the pros and seeing how its another level you have to get to and you know watching guys like Edler and Bartkowski, you just want to learn from them and bring your game to the next level.

How was the Young Stars Tournament in Penticton? 

It’s a really unique experience to meet all the guys in the organization, to meet all the staff and just to play out there. It’s something special, so you try to take in everything you can over there and learn and improve overall as a person and a player. Overall a great experience.

What parts of your game are you trying to work on this year?

My defensive game. Our power play is going pretty well, so the numbers are there but [defence] is a big part of the game, so if I want to make it at the next level, I have to be all around, so it’s a big part of my game I have to improve on.

Where are you, compared to your expectations?

To be honest, I don’t have any expectations in terms of points, I am trying to help the team as much as I can this year. As you can see, I think our power play is doing pretty well, so the points come as we are making good plays on the power play. So I’m proud of that.

It’s encouraging to hear Neill express a desire to improve upon his defensive game, as he feels that will further his chances of making it to the next level. He is by no means a defensive liability in the QMJHL, but this is something that he will need to round out if he hopes to turn pro. He will also need to improve his skating and mobility, but that is something that may be worked on once he makes the jump to professional hockey.

Taking an overage defenceman from the QMJHL is a generally a risky move that rarely pans out, but it looks like the Canucks may have something with Neill. He has good offensively instincts, good hockey sense and has been playing in all situations. Neill is also the Captain for Sherbrooke, which highlights his abilities to retain a leadership role – something which will of course endear Neill to the likes of Jim Benning.

Given that the Canucks drafted Neill in his D+1 season, he could turn pro as early as next year and based on the lack of close to NHL ready defensive prospects of the Canucks, I won’t be surprised if he does make that jump for the 2016-17 season. For as often as the Canucks are criticized in this space, it would be entirely unfair to not highlight some of their proficiencies. With Neill as a shining example, it’s well past time he was given the limelight.