Finally, Pittsburgh fans are getting a glimpse of what made forward James Neal so attractive to GM Ray Shero at last year’s trade deadline.
The Penguins sent promising, 26-year-old defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas in the deal for 24-year-old Neal – a 20-plus goal scorer in each of his first three NHL seasons – and 25-year-old blueliner Matt Niskanen. But, by the end of last year, only one of Neal’s 22 tallies had come during his 20 regular-season games in a Penguins uniform. He added another – a dramatic game-winner in 2OT – in Game 4 of Pittsburgh’s playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Penguins’ 3-1 series lead quickly evaporated en route to a first-round elimination.
“Of course it was frustrating. I wanted to score goals and help, and it was tough finding the back of the net,” Neal said. “It was tough to go into Game 7 and lose after we had a bit of a stranglehold on the series, but we did some good things and, hopefully, it makes us a little hungrier for this season.”
It also made Neal a little hungrier personally, as he headed first to play for Team Canada in the IIHF World Championship, then home to Ontario, where he participated in former Penguin Gary Roberts’ offseason training program along with Tampa Bay’s Steve Stamkos and Steve Downie, Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and John Mitchell of the AHL’s Connecticut Whale.
“It’s a good group,” Neal said. “I’ve trained with Gary for a while now. He cares about the guys he trains, and it’s so hockey-specific. He’s been around the game for so long, he knows what to put you through to get you ready to perform on the ice.”
And Neal’s performance so far has lived up to the nickname he earned in Dallas, “The Real Deal.” Through the first five contests, he’s on a point-per-game pace with four goals and one assist, including both goals in the Penguins’ 3-2 overtime loss to Washington Thursday.
“James is a guy who gets 20-25 goals a year for numerous years in a row, and there was talk [about] only getting one in the regular season last year, but James scores goals,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “He’s got a great shot, he’s a fast skater, a hard skater to the net, and he had great opportunities last year. And now, with [linemate Evgeni] Malkin and the ice that’s available and going to the net … I’m not totally surprised to see James get four goals in this short a time.”
Neal has shown chemistry with Malkin, who was already out for the year with a torn ACL and MCL when he arrived last February.
“I played with him all preseason so I got to know him a bit, got a pretty good feel for what he wants to do,” Neal said. “He’s so highly skilled, if he gets the puck you just try to find an opening and he’s going to find you.”
That’s what the Penguins envisioned when they acquired Neal. With star power down the middle in Malkin and Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh has struggled to find scoring wingers to complement them. And Neal is happy to accept the opportunity.
“They’re two very, very skilled players,” Neal said. “I’ve had a chance to watch them from afar and see what they can do, but to be here and be a part of it is something special, to be fortunate enough to be in a position to play with them.”
A natural left wing playing on the right side with Malkin and winger Steve Sullivan, Neal has also benefitted from Sullivan’s speed and patience with the puck, which has opened up shot opportunities for the Penguins, especially on the power play.
“Great plays by my linemates to find me in open spots,” Neal said of the goals against Washington.
Most of all, however, he’s benefitted from having a summer off since the trade that brought him to Pittsburgh, and the changes and expectations that went along with it.
“It’s definitely easier [this year],” Neal said. “Anytime a player gets traded, you put the pressure on yourself to go into a new team and show what you’ve got and do really well. It was tough getting adjusted to all the new things, new systems, just everything that goes along with that.”
He’s also had the chance to get a full training camp with the team under his belt and settle into his new home.
“It matters a lot,” he said. “You’re living in a hotel; your life’s changed upside down within a phone call. Coming in and getting accustomed to everything and meeting your new teammates and becoming good buddies with everybody – it’s an adjustment, it takes time. But I’ve been fortunate; it’s been easy here to come in and guys are very welcoming. That helps a lot.
“I’m feeling good, looking forward to a fresh start. Coming in and having a full camp in Pittsburgh, I’m getting settled, I’ve made Pittsburgh a home. And feeling comfortable here with everything off the ice, it carries over to on the ice.”
That’s good news for the 3-0-2 Penguins, as Neal is a player they’re counting on in the continued absence of Crosby’s scoring presence in the lineup; Malkin is also now day-to-day with soreness in his surgically repaired knee. Even without those players, however, Neal is confident that the Penguins’ system – “get the puck up as fast as we can and go onto offense” – can continue to find success.
“We’ve got a strong team; I’m not worried about Sid and Geno,” he said. “They’ll get back when they’re ready. We’ve just got to try to play the right way, the way we know how to, and we’ll be fine.”