I've heard numerous reports about how O'Neill is working hard at the unofficial practices with Rod Brind'Amour, Chad LaRose and a motley crew of others, including Bates Battaglia. One thing that I find slightly amusing is this quote from Brind'Amour, which I've seen in a number of places, but I'll attribute to Chip Alexander's article:
"When you're a smart player, and he's always been a smart player, you're always going have that. He's always going to have that ability to see the game, and his skating looks fine. He looks like he did when he left."
And Cam Ward with a similar quote:
Nothing has changed. He still looks like the same old self.
This is meant to be praise for O'Neill, who spent last season skating and working out, but not playing. However, those of us who remember what O'Neill looked like when he left might get a chuckle out of that. O'Neill was overweight, lazy and a bit of a bad banana when he left. Even before the second DUI and the comedic arrest for public urination, he had fallen out of favor with the Hurricanes faithful. By the end of the 2003-04 season, I was booing him with regularity, and I wasn't the only one doing so.
Since the DUI, Jeff has changed a lot. His brother was killed in a car crash, which prompted him to request a trade to Toronto. He got some of his game back, but nothing like the 67 (41/26) he scored in 2000-01. He followed that season with a 31-goal season, and a 30-goal season, but in that terrible year when he got fat and drunk, he scored just 14. In Toronto, he had a 19-goal and a 20-goal season before "retiring" prior to last season. So he was back on track a little.
In addition, O'Neill is older and calmer. He is married now, and his wife is expecting. That'll get just about anybody to straighten up and fly right.
Still, despite these votes of confidence, O'Neill isn't banking on anything and he's not looking for any special treatment. Paul Branecky had an article on the Hurricanes main page today, portraying O'Neill as a cautiously optimistic guy on a tryout. The article is a good read, but here's the money quote, from Jeff himself:
This is not really that big a deal. This is just a tryout where we’ll see what happens. If I play well and it looks like I can play, maybe something will happen. If not, it’s not going to happen... Jim Rutherford and Ronnie Francis, I consider them friends of mine and I think they’re going to be straight-up honest with me. If it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen, they’re just going to tell me it’s not going to happen. It’s as simple as that.
When O'Neill was given the invitation, the prevailing thought was that they were bringing him in strictly as a potential River Rat. Now, the rumor is starting to spin around and it seems like some of the talk is about him being on the big team. It's extremely unlikely, mostly because of the contract status of all the guys. If anyone's going to Albany, it's gonna have to be O'Neill.
My guess is that he'll either be picked up by someone else out of training camp, or he'll be signed to a two-way contract and immediately shipped to Albany.
One of these days before official camp opens, I'm gonna try to get out to "Camp Brind'Amour" to see for myself.