On Monday, the NHL came down hard on Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal. The league’s Department of Player Safety, led by Brendan Shanahan, gave out its ruling that Neal would be suspended for five games.
This is a major blow to a Pens team that is already banged up by injuries. It also hurts because the Penguins are not exactly the deepest team at forward right now. Forwards Beau Bennett and Tanner Glass are already missing time because of injuries. Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin has missed the past two games with a lower body injury. There is a bright spot around Malkin, however, because in the morning skate on Monday he practiced with the team and looks to play against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The biggest question is how will the suspension to James Neal affect the rest of the team?
This could be a problem for the Penguins for the next five games. James Neal has been one of the hottest goal scorers in the NHL since he returned to the lineup. He has been scoring on the power play, which is now tops in the NHL because of Neal, and has been scoring on the rush. The Penguins will have to find someone to fill that role for the time being. Early reports are that Jussi Jokinen will be taking Neal’s place on the first power play unit.
The other lineup issue that Neal’s absence leaves is who will play with Malkin and Jokinen? James Neal’s return has lit a spark in Malkin and as a result has shot Malkin up into the scoring raise in the NHL. Malkin has been playing out of his mind, and many people credit that to his comfort level with Neal. Now, for the time being, someone will have to replace Neal on Malkin’s line.
The early indications are that Jason Megna, who has played with Malkin and Jokinen this season, will take his place. Megna has done well during his call-ups from the AHL, but he is not James Neal.
It will be interesting to see if coach Dan Bylsma will try to mix-up the lines in the absence of Neal. Maybe we will see Pascal Dupuis or Chris Kunitz play some with Malkin. However, I doubt that he will want to take anyone off of Sidney Crosby’s line even if it is for just a few games.
Time will tell what the Penguins do, but the one thing that we do know is that James Neal is one person the Penguins just cannot replace right now. Hopefully, this suspension will go by quickly for Neal and the Penguins.