James Neal is a relatively short name for a largely solid player who has been packing quite a big punch on the ice for the Pittsburgh Penguins as of late.
Only a few short months ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Neal along with Dallas Stars teammate, defenseman Matt Niskanen, in exchange for Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming defenseman Alex Goligoski back in February 2011.
Shortly after arriving in Pittsburgh, talk of his being on a line with Penguins star Sidney Crosby began, once again, to ignite Penguins fans’ interest and unrequited hopes of “a winger for Crosby.”
Neal is the type of player that you can just feel in your hockey-wise bones posesses talent that will provide him with limitless possibilities throughout his professional career. One of those players that you can’t help but to watch. Perhaps it was his rookie season that has given some indication of just how talented he really is. In his first career NHL game playing for the Dallas Stars in October 2008, Neal scored his first NHL goal. A few months later into his rookie season in December 2008, he recorded his first NHL hat trick and went on to finish the season with a total of 24 goals (and 37 points) surpassing the number of rookie goals set by former Star, Jussi Jokinen, back in the 2005-06 season (with 17 goals).
However, his first albeit short season with Pittsburgh (a period of a little less than three months, February – May) didn’t come close to reflecting anything of that nature and you could just hear a collective sigh among the organization and fans echoing, “not again” (in reference to the 2010 Alexei Ponikarovski pick-up and the like).
But even early on during this past pre-season, you could feel the nervous energy among Pens Nation when Neal had the puck and failed to cash-in on ideal opportunities around the net despite how obviously hard he worked. His inability to score goals was definitely not for a lack of playing hard or physical for it; somewhat hesitant, perhaps, but not for an inability to play. It was painfully apparent that he was in the right places at the right times, but the bounces never seemed to go his way and neither did the goals. Until, that is, the Penguins first regular-season game against the Canucks on the road in Vancouver earlier this month. A few seconds past five minutes into the first period, Neal scored his first goal of the season and there was a palpable shift in his play and the bounces along with, unquestionably, an increase in his confidence. The goal flood-gates had opened and the positive results of which have yet to and hopefully will not subside.
What makes Neal so successful, especially in Dan Bylsma’s system and why you just knew that once he overcame this hurdle that there would be no stopping him, is that he can play both sides of the puck – offensively and defensively. He certainly doesn’t shy away from scrums along the boards and in the corners for pucks which fits perfectly into Bylsma’s game-plan.
Thursday evening, with a home-win against the Montreal Canadiens at the CONSOL, Neal scored his seventh goal (through all nine games he / the team has played). Presently, he is tied with Toronto’s Phil Kessel who is also playing at the top of his game right now, as the league’s leading scorer(s) with seven goals.
Recently, a buzz has already started about an extension for Neal with Pittsburgh. It looks like his hard work will pay off for him. According to an article from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Rob Rossi and Josh Yohe who recently talked to Penguins general manager, Ray Shero, it doesn’t appear to be a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when.’
“We’ll likely wait a little bit,” Shero said of potential extension talks with Neal’s agent, Pat Morris. “He has an agent I’ve dealt with well over the years. When the time comes, we’ll get something done. There’s no doubt in that.”
And, to think, all this BEFORE he gets to play on a line with Sidney Crosby (OH, the possibilities!). Until then, we’ll most likely continue to see Neal taking care of business.