Throughout last season one of the more disappointing Leafs was winger Jeff O'Neill. Granted, he was coming off one of his worst offensive seasons and the death of his brother during the summer. Despite the latter's heavy burden, Jeff was expected to provide Mats with the bona fide 'sniper' that his wings have mostly lacked since he arrived in Toronto. In today's Star, Paul Hunter takes a closer look at O'Neill's off-season and his preparedness for the new season.
What is clear is that O'Neill did not anticipate the heavy burden that his grief represented:
"If anyone hasn't experienced it, it's a very difficult thing to deal with," O'Neill said yesterday. "It's hard enough to play in this league with no distractions. It hurt a lot. I didn't know how much it was going to hurt but it hurts a lot. It just takes a lot out of you, just stress-wise. There's no way of really getting over it but I just think I'm more comfortable with it and I'm just ready to play hockey again."
Watching him last year you could see that he was sluggish and disinterested in most games. This was so pervasive last year that he suffered the ignominy of being relegated to the press box for a stretch. That must have done nothing but exacerbate the situation. Thankfully, rather than being quickly thrust into a grueling NHL campaign Jeff was able to benefit from a long summer (a benefit of missing the playoffs?) of reflection on his grief and career.
Time has passed, healing has occurred, and shoulders are operated on and now O'Neill is sounding like a man ready to be re-born.
"I feel refreshed and I feel like I'm actually concentrating on hockey solely right now as opposed to being worried about off-ice stuff and family issues," he said. "It's been a long summer to think about it. I feel like I'm ready to play hockey again and to focus my attention on it."
I think that if Jeff is truly in that mindset that we will see a player that more closely resembles the player that was controversially left off of the 2002 Olympic roster in the midst of a 40-goal season and looks less like the sad, lost player that donned the Leafs jersey last year. If he can capture that old form (I am betting on it) he could be the player to help the Leafs get the most out of their captain.