Aaron O’Neill has enough talent so that there was no question he was worthy of selection in the Ontario Hockey League’s priority draft. He also is good enough that he has options, which likely effected how teams in that league, one of three in Canada’s top junior ranks, viewed him.
As it turned out, the Franklin resident and Centennial High School student went in the 10th round (19th overall) to the Plymouth Whalers on Saturday.
“Aaron is a high-end prospect that has had national recognition,” Keith Rowe, who coached O’Neill last season with the TPH Thunder, a top U.S. program based in Huntsville, Ala. “He would have probably gone much higher in the draft, actually, if they were certain he was going to play in the OHL as compared to college.”
According to Rowe, O’Neill was graded as an A+ prospect and worthy of a second or third-round selection by the OHL, which can choose players from most of the Eastern United States as well as Canada.
However, he was one of 44 skaters invited to the U.S. Development Team’s camp and could be selected as a member of the national under-17 team next season. He also has interest from U.S. college programs.
While his future is to be determined, therefore, it already is clear that O’Neill is one of, if not the best prospect that Middle Tennessee has produced.
“The whole Southeast region is growing,” Rowe said. “I think you see more and more players coming out of the Southeast, whether it’s Nashville, Huntsville, Atlanta or even down to Florida. It’s a growing area and I think it will continue to do so.
“Last year was the year [O’Neill] really had a breakout year, had a lot of attention going on. Then it continued this year with our U-16 team. It was a very deep team that was one of the best teams in the country, and I think that helped him with the recognition as well.”
In 58 games, the 6-foot, 167-pound center had 25 goals and 39 assists.
“His number-one strength is his skating,” Rowe said. “He’s a high-end skater in the country. His vision is very good. He can improve on consistently competing and battling. He’s done a much better job of that over the last two years, and I think he has more potential than a lot of the kids ahead of him today.
“I think you’ll see him pass some of the kids that are rated slightly ahead of him now.”
No matter where he goes.