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Mark McNeill is still waiting for his big Blackhawks break

Mark McNeill made his NHL debut on Jan. 26 at Carolina. It's the only NHL game of his career. (Getty Images)

Mark McNeill is a Blackhawks staple without a Blackhawks history.

He was a first-round draft pick in 2011, so long ago the Hawks were barely a year removed from their first Stanley Cup of the modern era. At 23, he’s closer in age to Patrick Kane than Alex DeBrincat. He was Rockford’s second-leading scorer last season, the leading scorer the year before that, and the fifth-leading scorer the year before that. He’s been on the cusp of the NHL for so long, this is his fifth training camp in Chicago.

That’s why it’s so jarring to realize that Wednesday’s preseason opener was the first actual game McNeill ever played at the United Center.

“I’m thrilled,” he said before the game. “I’m excited I’m in the lineup. I’m planning to come out flying and have a lot of fun with it.”

If there’s any bitterness in McNeill, any frustration at seeing so many prospects — most of them younger, most of them less productive at the AHL level — promoted ahead of him, he’s not showing it. Even after having to wait until July 15 to sign a one-year, two-way contract as a restricted free agent, McNeill sounds as happy and optimistic as ever. He even showed up for the Hawks fan convention without a deal in place (it was finally announced the day the convention began).

“Of course, there are uncertainties when you’re an unsigned player, but I’ve always loved being a part of the Blackhawks organization and being here,” McNeill said. “I want nothing more than to try to make this team and help this team win. My focus was trying to get a contract to come back here.”

The loyalty to the franchise that drafted him and the determination to stick it out are perfectly understandable. But from afar, McNeill seemed like one of those career prospects who desperately needed a new city and a new team, one that would give him a real chance to make it in the NHL. After all, in the five years he’s been in the Hawks organization, he’s played in just one NHL game — at Carolina last season.

And McNeill’s name was bandied about in trade discussions over the summer, with his hometown Edmonton Oilers in the mix, according to a source.

But with the Hawks facing an alarming dearth of forwards, McNeill’s best shot may indeed still be in Chicago.

“This is certainly a big year,” assistant coach Kevin Dineen said. “We’ve talked about players in the past that need the quote-unquote change of scenery, but I think Mark’s main focus over the next couple of weeks is to make the NHL in a Blackhawk uniform.”

To do that, Dineen said, McNeill will need to play with a physical edge and throw his 6-2, 212-pound frame around, and to even “defend” his teammates should the need arise. McNeill has scored 18, 23, and 25 goals in his three full seasons in Rockford. There’s basically nothing left for him to prove at the AHL level.

For years, McNeill and Phil Danault — drafted eight picks apart in 2011 — were intrinsically linked within the organization and among the fan base. And McNeill admitted it’s “a little strange” to be at a Hawks camp without his longtime running buddy. But Danault got his cup of coffee in the NHL back in 2014-15, and broke through permanently last season, playing 30 games before being traded to Montreal at the trade deadline.

It’s just another sign of just how long McNeill has been waiting for his first real chance at the NHL. In that game in Carolina last January, he played 12 minutes, 44 seconds, and failed to record a point, a shot on goal, or even a shot attempt. His only marks on the scoresheet were a takeaway and three hits. But the experience has lingered in his memory, and has driven him to keep chasing his NHL dream, and to keep chasing it in Chicago.

“Once you get that taste, you just want more,” he said. “I’m a pretty self-motivated guy, and I’m pretty hungry to achieve my goals and make it here.”

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus