In his NHL draft year, sophomore centre Mark McNeill of the Prince Albert Raiders has been attracting scouts to the Art Hauser Centre. Herald photo by John MacNeil
Prince Albert Raiders centre Mark McNeill is worth a second look. Just ask Martin Madden, the Anaheim Ducks’ director of amateur scouting.
Madden watched McNeill in back-to-back WHL games at the Art Hauser Centre, and the 17-year-old sophomore from Edmonton didn’t disappoint.
“I like what I saw,” Madden said during his recent Prince Albert visit. “He’s good with the puck, he’s good without the puck, he’s diligent, he’s good on faceoffs (and) he logs a lot of ice time for this team.”
Madden, 39, has been scouting junior hockey for so long that he no longer needs to end his name with Junior.
His father — and namesake — has retired from the Montreal Canadiens, but Madden carries on the family scouting tradition.
“My dad retired almost five years ago, so it’s easier to drop the Junior now,” Madden said with a laugh.
Much like his father did in building the Habs and previously the Quebec Nordiques, Madden is hunting for potential NHL talent in junior hockey rinks. That mission brought him to Prince Albert to scout the Raiders and specifically McNeill, whose draft stock continues to rise.
Scouts have been stopping at the Art Hauser Centre with greater frequency this season, mainly because of McNeill, six-foot-two and about 210 pounds.
Madden had heard positive reports on McNeill from the Ducks’ two scouts in Western Canada, but the Montreal-based executive wanted to see the man-child live in WHL action. Unlike many of the scouts who usually drop in for one game, Madden hung around to watch a pair of Raider games, both of which went to overtime.
“That’s just the way I like to do things, on a first viewing,” he said. “It’s easy to catch a player on a bad game the first-time around, and I just want to make sure that the first time I see a player, I see at least two games.
“I hadn’t had a chance to see P.A. last year, so this (opportunity) is good. You’ve got to see it for yourself, for sure.”
On both nights in Prince Albert, he was able to see the strong-and-skilled McNeill play quality minutes in multiple roles during a shootout loss to the Moose Jaw Warriors and an overtime loss to the Swift Current Broncos.
“That was the guy I was coming to see,” Madden said from the press box. “It’s a little too early on a first viewing like that to make (pro) comparisons, but I like what I saw.
“The coaches seem to trust him quite a bit, on the PK (penalty kill), and on the point on the power play, he’s almost out there for the full two minutes, so that must say something of what they think of him as a player.”
As a 16-year-old, McNeill was never a healthy scratch in his rookie season in the WHL. He narrowly missed making Canada’s under-18 team this past summer, but that exclusion appears to have only sparked him in his sophomore season with the Raiders. He’s a go-to player at a young age, manning first-line duty and showing leadership as an assistant captain. He has seven goals and 22 points in 19 games, and he isn’t afraid to mix it up physically.
McNeill fought in authoritative fashion Friday night when he liberally swung right-handers against Swift Current rookie Shea Howorko, who had taken a hit from Andrew Herle that ignited last-minute fisticuffs in the Broncos’ 5-1 victory.
Prince Albert’s lone NHL-drafted player is defenceman Ryan Button, a third-round pick of the Boston Bruins in 2009.
“He’s been playing good,” Button, also of Edmonton, said of McNeill. “Definitely, his point total has been up (from 24 points in 68 games last season).
“I’ve talked to Mark a little bit, personally, about what he has to do to get to that next level. At this level, he’s a guy that could put up a lot of points. At the next level, I don’t think that’s going to be him. He’s going to be an in-your-face, power forward kind of guy, and the quicker he gets to that role, the better off he’ll be.
“But he’s a huge guy. He’s incredibly strong for his age. So, the quicker we get him battling in front of the net and in the corners and kind of getting a little dirty, I think he’ll become a really special player.”
McNeill is showing his muscle and his skill — and NHL scouts are taking notice as they do their homework for the June draft. He’s already on The Hockey News’ draft hot list.
OVERTIME: This week, the Raiders host the Seattle Thunderbirds on Wednesday and the Portland Winterhawks on Saturday. In between, Prince Albert visits Swift Current on Friday.