O'Neill is okay

Jeff O'Neill (right) says his surgically repaired shoulder is fine and that he is working hard to...

Jeff O'Neill (right) says his surgically repaired shoulder is fine and that he is working hard to get himself into game shape. (Toronto Sun/Veronica Henri)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

Jeff O'Neill claims his surgically repaired shoulder is fine.

He likely can't say the same about his rump, which probably collected a few splinters Wednesday night.

O'Neill found himself nailed to the end of the bench for much of the Maple Leafs' 5-3 pre-season loss to the Ottawa Senators, leading to speculation that the veteran winger had landed in the bad books of no-nonsense coach Paul Maurice.

It wouldn't have been the first time.

Back when both were with the Carolina Hurricanes, Maurice skated O'Neill and six other players so hard young Craig MacDonald finally collapsed to the ice.

"It's a (expletive) joke is all it was," O'Neill said at the time.

Is history repeating itself?

Has O'Neill, called "O-Dog" by his teammates, found his way back into Maurice's doghouse?

Peppered with that question yesterday, Maurice wanted to make it clear that he still believes in O'Neill. Having said that, the new Leafs bench boss maintains that the onus is on the player to earn the right for more ice time.

"I thought he got popped with a hit (early on versus Ottawa)," Maurice said yesterday. "So when it came to going with three lines he wasn't on the first three.

"Getting into the doghouse is quite easy and so is getting out. It's nothing personal with me. I'm more than happy to talk to anyone. If you had a bad night last night, then come out and have a great practice today, you're out of the kennel.

"I liked parts of his game in Halifax (Sunday). I really liked his game in Montreal (Saturday). I thought, 'There's the flash I'm looking for.' So we'll just keep looking for it."

Back in the spring, O'Neill was contemplating sitting out the 2006-07 campaign because of an ailing right shoulder, the fact that the death of his brother in a motor vehicle accident last summer still haunts him, and his well-publicized fear of flying.

But watching the Hurricanes win the Stanley Cup rekindled his love for the game. Nevertheless, there were concerns about his fitness at the start of camp, leading Maurice to be asked if O'Neill, who carries a salary of $1.5 million US this season, is being watched "on a tryout basis."

"No," the coach replied. "I just don't think he has played a lot of hockey over the past few years, what with the lockout, shoulder surgery, lack of ice time ...

"He needs to find his rhythm. He's a shooter. You can work on rhythm and getting in a groove in practice, but you really need to get into games (to have success).

"He's pretty mature when it comes to his game. He came off his shoulder surgery and he was not in great shape when he came out of it over the summer. He's working to get back to that. We'll be as patient as we can be because we know he's a gifted player. At the same time, you've got to be able to perform at a certain level to play opening night.

"I'm pleased in the improvement he has made relative to where he started."

For his part, O'Neill is not reading anything into his lack of playing time Wednesday night. Having played with everyone from Wade Belak to Mats Sundin in camp, he just hopes to find some permanent linemates in the coming days.

"I think that the exhibition games I've played, I've played pretty good," he said. "I don't know what they think, though. I'm just trying to get my legs under me, trying to play physical and make sure my shoulder is good for the season."


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