When it comes to junior hockey, I don’t believe in late bloomers. By and large, players are either good or bad, and it’s the circumstances around them that change. For Carl Neill, unpacking the nature of those circumstances will say a lot about who he is as a player.
Since his breakout season in 2014-15, Neill has scored at a pace of 0.7 points per game — no small feat for a defender. The caveat is that he’s done so at an advanced age relative to his peers, while playing alongside Jeremy Roy, one of the Q’s best defencemen. There are a number of reasons for optimism, however, which is why Neill’s ranked 16 on our consensus ranking.
Drafting overage defencemen from the QMJHL hasn’t traditionally been a wise investment for most NHL teams, but there’s reason to believe Neill could be an exception. His first season of draft eligibility was a disappointing one, but also one that requires context. By his own admission, Neill was out of shape during his first two seasons with the Phoenix, and in anticipation of the 2014-15 season, he began to make regular visits with a nutritionist and personal trainer.
“It was all a real wake-up call. The team wasn’t shy about letting 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.”
The Calgary Flames saw enough in Neill to offer him an invite to their development camp. While attending that camp, Neill was diagnosed with a rare heart defect called Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrom by the Flames’ medical staff. Instead of being afforded the chance to earn a contract, he was sent home, where he quickly underwent surgery to correct an irregular heartbeat.
Neill’s production has seen a significant uptick since his health issues were diagnosed and remedied, something I’d suggest isn’t a coincidence. The QMJHL is, at least in relative terms, a highly competitive league, and holding one’s own in major junior is already difficult enough. That Neill was able to do so while suffering from cardiovascular issues is impressive, to say the least. With that in mind, there’s reason to believe the version of Carl Neill we’ve seen of late is a better approximation of his talent than the version that went undrafted in his first two years of eligibility.
At first glance, it’s easy to be concerned about just how much Neill’s production came as a result of playing alongside a truly elite prospect in Jeremy Roy. While Roy certainly brings with him a level of name recognition that Neill simply does not possess, there’s reason to believe that both players benefited equally from being paired with each other. When the Neill and Roy pair was separated at the end of 2015, Neill’s production did not take a hit, although the Phoenix struggled in general while they were separated.
Neill also possesses an enviable offensive toolkit. A self-described puck-moving defenseman, Neill has fantastic vision, and the ability to make a great first pass. He’s often tasked with leading the breakout for Sherbrooke and isn’t afraid to join the rush should the situation call for it. Neill was a fixture on both special teams for the Phoenix, showing an adeptness at in-zone play on the penalty kill, and possessing the type of booming slap shot that can make him a powerful weapon on the man advantage. While mobility was initially a concern in Neill’s game, he’s come a long way in mitigating those worries over the past season.
In a fantastic piece on his personal blog, former Canucks Army Managing Editor Rhys Jessop had this to say about the relationship between scoring by defencemen at the junior level and success in the NHL
To be a regular NHL defenceman, you probably had to be an outstanding player in the CHL at both ends of the ice.
On the whole, this has proven to be accurate. The vast majority of NHL regulars who failed to produce at a significant clip in their first season of draft eligibility in the CHL did become offensive contributors for their junior clubs later on down the road, which is something that bodes well for Neill’s prospects of success at the NHL level.
In spite of the fact that his offensive abilities have put his name on the map over the past season or so, Carl Neill likely projects as a two-way or defensive defenceman at the NHL level, as counter-intuitive as that may sound. Most offensive D just find their offensive gear at an earlier stage than Neill has. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With the heightened emphasis NHL teams have begun to place on puck possession, the role of the “defensive defenceman” is changing. In today’s NHL, being a successful defenceman has less to do with the traditional attributes we associate with defending, whether it be physicality, shot-blocking, or otherwise, and more to do with the ability to get the puck moving into the attacking zone. Luckily for Neill, this is an attribute he possesses in spades, so much so that he may one day find himself able to carve out a role as what Jim Benning has called a “transitional defensive defenceman”.
Neill has really done everything that could reasonably be expected to push his way up our rankings, but it’s important to remember that in spite of the offensive explosion, the odds are still stacked against him. When viewed through the lens of pGPS, only 8.5% of statistically similar players have gone on to play over 200 NHL games. Out of over 70 matches, only six have gone on to make any sort of real name for themselves. That said, the matches that did achieve success are an impressive lot. The list of matches for Carl Neill is one that features names like Jason Demers, Zbynek Michalek, and Johnny Oduya, so if Neill can realize the potential he’s flashed in his most recent season, there’s reason to believe he has legitimate top-four upside.
It’s likely Neill will return to Sherbrooke for his overage season. Utica’s left side on defence is packed as it is, and Neill is still raw enough in terms of talent that he could benefit from an additional year in the CHL. From Sherbrooke’s perspective, I’m sure he’ll be welcomed back with open arms. In many ways, Neill is the Phoenix. He’s not only served as their captain, but he’s also the franchise’s all-time leader in total games played.
Either way, Neill has put himself on the map over the past season, so much so that I think pGPS may undersell him just a little. The idea behind draft analytics is to determine a suitable range in which a player should be selected. Traditional scouting is still alive and well. If a player has a success probability of 8.5%, then it should be a scouting staff’s job to determine whether or not that player is one of that 8.5%. Thus far, Carl Neill has passed the eye test with flying colours, so that’s a bet I’d be willing to make.