In a somewhat surprising move, veteran defenseman Will O’Neill was unable to land an NHL contract this off-season. The 30-year-old blue liner was one of several signings announced today by the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. O’Neill returns to the Pittsburgh affiliate with whom he played for during the 2015-16 season on an NHL contract.
By any measure except age, O’Neill’s career trajectory appeared to be trending upward and certainly away from a minor league contract. The 2006 Atlanta Thrashers draft pick has spent almost all of his six-year pro career in the AHL, but every season except one has been played on an NHL contract. In fact, when O’Neill was last a free agent two years ago, he landed a two-year deal from the Philadelphia Flyers as a valued depth asset. This past season, O’Neill finally made his NHL debut and did not look out of place in a November contest against the St. Louis Blues. He also watched on as the extra man for several games with Philadelphia. In the AHL, O’Neill was a strong defensive presence and also recorded 19 points in 59 games with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms – well off his career-high 50-point mark in an All-Star campaign with the Penguins two years ago, but also in far fewer games and in a more conservative role.
At 30, O’Neill was unlikely to be an NHL regular for anyone this season or in the future, but it certainly seemed like he had established himself as a viable depth option for a team. Obviously, that wasn’t the case as the veteran opted to sign an AHL contract. O’Neill could be the latest victim of a slow market for older defenseman. Similarly situated aging extra defender Taylor Chorney decided to sign overseas last week, while the Boston-area native O’Neill instead chose to stay at home in the U.S. on a minor league basis. Several other veteran defenseman could be choosing between the same two routes – or retirement – in the coming weeks as a quiet off-season wears on.