November 01, 2015

Neil Wilkinson

Born in Selkirk, Manitoba was a wiry and extremely competitive NHL defenseman. Wilkinson was a very big physical blueliner. Standing 6'3", he had to work hard to reach 200lbs. His lack of bulk prevented him from establishing himself as a true physical phenom in the defensive zone, as did a long list of injuries.

Neil only played in more than 70 games in one NHL season, and 5 times missed more than 40 games in a season. Although he was asked to fill the role of physical blueliner, Neil played a smart game and didn't take too many bad penalties. He had decent mobility for a man of his size, and while his stats certainly don't show it, he had better puck skills than most will give him credit for. If he had been healthier he probably would have been considered a top 4 d-man on any team in the league, but for the most part he was considered a 5th, 6th or even 7th blueliner much of his career.

The Minnesota North Stars chose Neil in the second round (30th overall) of the 1986 Entry Draft. Neil played 19 games for Michigan State University of the CCHA in 1986-87 but dropped out of the collegiate game to join the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL for the 1987-88 season. The Canadian Junior leagues were considered the best development league for NHL talent, and Neil wanted desperately to fulfill his childhood dream of playing the bigs. (Not to mention it was slightly closer to home as well). In 55 games in Neil scored 11 goals and 21 assists. Though he appeared in just 5 playoff games, he helped the Tigers win the 1988 Memorial Cup championship. That Tigers team was a very strong team also featuring Trevor Linden, Mark Fitzpatrick, Mark Pederson and Dean Chynoweth. Arguably only Linden went on to a better professional career than Wilkinson.

"Wilky" went to play for Kalamazoo of the IHL in 1988-89, where in 39 games he scored 20 points (five goals, 15 assists). He spent part of the next season in Kalamazoo as well, scoring 6 goals and 7 assists before making his debut with the North Stars in 1989-90, playing in 36 games and tallying five assists.

In 1990-91, Neil made it to the NHL on a full time basis except for a 10 game stint back with Kalamazoo. He registered a career-high 117 penalty minutes as well as scoring his first two NHL goals and adding 9 assists. The young defenseman played strongly in the Stars Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup finals before they were torn apart by Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins. Wilky's play was steady and mature beyond his years. He even added 3 goals and 3 assists. The Stars felt that finally Wilkinson was starting to show what he was truly capable of and were really excited.

That excitement ended, at least from a Minnesota viewpoint, on May 30, 1991 when the expansion San Jose Sharks claimed Neil in the Dispersal Draft. In 1991-92, he spent his first full season in the NHL, posting career-highs in goals (four), assists (15), and points (19) in 60 games with the Sharks. In 1992-93, Neil scored a goal and seven assists in 59 games. Neil played extremely well in San Jose especially in year one. The young d-man played really steady, as his respectable -11 with a first year expansion team will attest. In year two the weights placed on the young man's shoulders caused him to collapse, as he and the Sharks were the laughing stock of the league. Neil's +/- ballooned to -11. The Sharks desperately needed Wilkinson to be the defenseman he had the potential to be, and like most expansion teams with no depth, rushed him too far too fast. As a result, Wilkinson was unable to live up to lofty expectations.

On July 9, 1993, he was acquired by the Chicago Blackhawks as the future consideration in the Jimmy Waite trade from the previous month. Neil played a career-high 72 games with the Blackhawks in 1993-94, scoring three goals and nine assists. On June 3, 1994, he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for a 1995 draft pick. In a way it's too bad for Neil that he had to leave Chicago. In the Windy City he was not asked to be a number one d-man, something which he was not. Playing behind names like Chris Chelios, Gary Suter, Steve Smith and Eric Weinrich, Wilkinson excelled as a depth defenseman and learned a great deal from the aforementioned stars.

After 21 games with Winnipeg in 1995-96, he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 28, 1995, in exchange for Norm Maciver. Neil's stay in Pittsburgh was marred by several serious injuries. In three full seasons in Pittsburgh, Neil only appeared in 81 contests.

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