Jeff Friesen played five games for the American League\'s Lake Erie Monsters and recorded five points last season. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
They share a first name and were first round picks in 1994. They were both rushed into the NHL too early and had up-and-down careers before falling off the face of the earth last season.
And now Jeff O’Neill and Jeff Friesen are back to try to end their careers on their terms, in the places where it all started for them.
When training camps open later this week, O’Neill will be there on a tryout with the Carolina Hurricanes and Friesen will be trying to gain employment with the San Jose Sharks. In both cases there are no guarantees and no favors curried for past accomplishments. If they prove they can still contribute at the NHL level, they will stay. If not, they’ll be cut loose.
Here’s hoping the 32-year-olds manage to do enough to impress their teams. Both Friesen and O’Neill have been good players in the NHL for stretches of time. In 2000-01, O’Neill scored 41 goals for the Carolina Hurricanes and a year later was a key cog in their run to the Stanley Cup final. Friesen, on the other hand, is a five-time 20-goal scorer and was outstanding in the 2003 playoffs for the New Jersey Devils, scoring 10 goals, four of them game-winners. In the final against the Anaheim (Mighty, then) Ducks, Friesen scored five goals, including two in the Devils’ Cup-clinching 3-0 win in Game 7.
Both skaters are well aware this could be their last, best chance to play in the NHL again. For his part, O’Neill comes back as a renewed player who spent much of last year dealing with his off-ice issues and he also got married. After losing his brother in a car accident in the summer of 2005, O’Neill struggled for two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. And even though he scored 39 goals during his time with the Leafs, there was no work for him when last season started.
(There’s actually a funny story about that. Apparently, when it became clear to O’Neill he wasn’t going to play in the NHL last season, he took his equipment and threw it into a lake near his home in southern Ontario.)
Both O’Neill and Friesen have been productive players over the course of their careers, despite the fact Friesen was rushed into the NHL as an 18-year-old and O’Neill was rushed in as a 19-year-old. Of all the players taken in the 1994 draft, only Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Hejduk, Ryan Smyth and Patrik Elias have scored more than the 237 goals O’Neill has and only Alfredsson, Hejduk, Smyth, Elias, Steve Sullivan and Chris Drury have tallied more than the 516 points Friesen has totaled over the course of his career.
Both Friesen and O’Neill are showing up to camp with a renewed attitude and something to prove. Here’s hoping they both find a place in the NHL.
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