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IceHogs McNeill, Danault have tough road

ROCKFORD — Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault know the challenge ahead of them, and they don’t seem afraid of it.

McNeill and Danault, taken eight picks apart in the first round of the 2011 NHL draft, are linemates for the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate in Rockford. They’re in their first full AHL season, and they’re trying to get used to playing with professionals after graduating from major junior hockey.

But sooner or later, they’ll have to try to break into the NHL, It won’t be easy because of the Blackhawks’ success, relative youth, depth and number of forwards signed to long-term deals.

“They’re young and good for sure, but I think every good player has his place up there,” said Danault, the 26th pick two years ago. “So we have to keep improving and then pick up a spot.”

Danault has two goals and 10 assists centering for McNeill, the 18th pick in 2011, and former Blackhawks forward Joakim Nordstrom. McNeill, who moved from center to right wing, has seven goals and seven assists.

Of the Blackhawks’ forwards, only Michal Handzus and Brandon Bollig are unrestricted free agents after the season. Brandon Pirri and Ben Smith are restricted free agents. Teuvo Teravainen, the Hawks’ first-round pick in 2012, is expected to play in the NHL next season, adding another roadblock to a spot in Chicago.

But McNeill and Danault, both 20, are trying to get better in Rockford, not focus on roster spots in the NHL.

“Obviously, with winning the Cup twice in the last handful of years, they’re on the right track and they know what they’re doing with developing their players,” McNeill said. “Very appreciative to be where I am right now.”

If they continue to develop, McNeill and Danault will get their chance with the Hawks.

“The structure within the organization is build within, so there’s going to be opportunity down the road,” Rockford coach Ted Dent said. “It’s just a matter of when.”

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