PROVIDENCE — Mark McNeill is one of the reasons Jay Leach believes his Providence Bruins will be strong at center this season.
McNeill, the 18th overall pick in 2011 by the Chicago Blackhawks, signed a two-way deal with Boston in July. He had a pair of fights in preseason games with Boston before being assigned to the P-Bruins this week.
“He’s got a boatload of skill and he’s a big body and he does skate pretty well. Clearly shows that he’s physical. I think he opened some eyes with the way he played – abrasive,” Leach said today.
“We’ve had talks just about the fact that he has the ability to play in the NHL. In order to get there, we’ll have to work on his pace, in tight areas, being a little bit more aggressive in using his feet. He’s got all the tools to do it, he really does. That’s our outlook for him to start the season.”
McNeill, 25, had his most productive season in the AHL in 2015-16 when he scored 25 goals and 48 points in 64 games with Rockford.
He played more center than wing during Boston’s training camp and that’s where Leach is likely to play him.
“I think he can play both. Sometimes big boys like that can use a little windup speed. He might be a little bit more effective that way. He’s pretty conscientious defensively. If he works on those first few strides in closing quickly, he really might be able to play (in the NHL),” said Leach.
Pending final cuts in Boston, Leach could have centers Jordan Szwarz, Jacob Forsbacka Karlsson and Trent Frederic in his lineup, in addition to McNeill and Colby Cave.
“We should have four very good centers. There’s a lot of options there, depending on who we get,” Leach said.
Hughes will help
Rookie Cam Hughes, who scored twice for Boston in the preseason, is a handy player to have around.
Leach is looking for the Wisconsin alumnus to “take what he did in camp and keep going with it” as he starts his first full season as a pro.
In Boston’s camp, “He played a little bit of center, a little bit of wing. He and (Karson Kuhlman) seem to have a little bit of chemistry together, especially on the defensive side of things. We’re going to use him in a lot of different situations. He has the ability to make some plays, scored a couple of goals,” said Leach.
“Assuming we’re getting who we think we’re getting (once roster decisions are made in Boston), we should have a lot of opportunities to play people with difference guys. We don’t want to get stale.
“He can be a checker for us and I think he can also score for us, depending on the lineup and the personnel we have at that particular moment. For a coach it’s awesome because I can slot him in a lot of different places.”
Who is the next captain?
Don’t expect the P-Bruins to have a captain when the puck drops in Hartford on Oct. 5.
“For the time being, we’ll probably just have (assistant captains) and we’ll see when the dust settles. We have plenty of leaders in the room. We’ll most like have A’s that will rotate,” said Leach.
Chris Breen, Szwarz and Cave were among the players who wore A’s last season.
“There are a lot of guys who have been here for three or four years now that are well aware of the way we want to play and the standard that we want to compete at. They’re all going to be looked at to lead. Until the dust settles and we really see that guy, we’ll be led with a group effort,” Leach said.
Tommy Cross, who wore the “C” with distinction in Providence for three seasons, is now with Cleveland.