Behind The Bench: James Neal
Born: September 3, 1987
Wt: 205 lbs
Draft: 33rd overall by the Dallas Stars in 2005
Plays for: The Pittsburgh Penguins, Left Wing, Shoots Left
Jersey No.: #18
Regular Season: 234 GP – 73 G – 64 A – 137 P
Playoffs: 7 GP – 1 G – 1 A – 2 P
A power forward is characterized as a forward who is big and strong. Power forwards are capable of punishing players physically and putting pucks in the net, typically racking up both points and penalty minutes. James Neal is not the first player fans discuss when they talk about power forwards, but he will soon be mentioned alongside players like LW/RW Rich Nash, C Ryan Getzlaf and LW Milan Lucic.
In 2005, Stars Assistant GM Les Jackson had this to say about James Neal:
“He’s a clone of Brenden Morrow. He may be bigger. He may be a little more gifted with the puck.”
It was only fitting that the organization that drafted Brenden Morrow 25th overall in ’97 should take his ‘clone’ at 33rd overall in 2005. After being drafted, Neal went back to the juniors and played 2 more seasons with the Plymouth Whalers, leading them to an OHL title during the 06/07 season. He went on to lead all Memorial Cup scorers with 5 goals.
After finishing his junior career, Neal was unable to crack the Dallas line-up and spent the 07/08 season playing with their minor league affiliate, the Iowa Stars. After spending his first pro season in the minors, Neal came into training camp in 08/09 and earned a spot in Dallas’s top 9. Neal played his first NHL game on October 10, 2008 versus the Columbus Blue Jackets. He finished the game with 3 shots on net and 1 goal in 16:13 of ice time. Neal had a great first half to his rookie season, scoring 12 goals and adding 4 assists. His early season performance earned him a spot on the Young Stars Rookie team at the 2009 All-Star game. Neal improved on his already impressive performance during the second half. Neal tallied 24 goals by the end of his rookie season, breaking a Stars team record of goals scored by a rookie (the record was previously held by Jussi Jokinen, who scored 17 goals in 05/06 season). Neal added 13 assists, giving him 37 points in 77 games. Brenden Morrow, meanwhile, had 33 points in his rookie season. Following a disappointing 12th place finish, Stars coach Dave Tippett was fired on June 10th, 2009; Marc Crawford assumed the position.
Crawford rewarded Neal’s rookie season by placing him on a line with C Brad Richards and LW Loui Eriksson. On the newly formed top line, Neal jettisoned into the 09/10 season by scoring 3 goals in his first 2 games. The line flourished under Crawford’s new offensive system. By the season’s end, each member of the trio would go on to post new career highs. Neal set new highs in goals (27), assists (28), and points (55), Eriksson set new highs in assists (42) and points (71) and Richards tied a career high in points (91). Neal was rewarded for his 55 point sophomore season with a two-year contract extension worth $5.75M.
Neal carried his strong offensive play into the 10/11 season. He was on pace to match his point total from the previous season until he was traded on February 21, 2011. The Stars traded Neal and D Matt Niskanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins for D Alex Goligoski. The deal was a zero-sum move by the Stars organization; they gained defensive depth with Goligoski but lost in offensive depth with the departure of Neal. Neal posted 6 points in 20 regular season games with the Pens and finished the season with 22 goals, 23 assists, and 45 points. He also posted 2 points in 7 games during his first playoff series.
Though Neal’s point total declined by 10 points from the previous season, it should be considered an off year for him because he has not reached his full potential. The same potential he should have no problem fully-realizing flanking the leagues 2nd best playmaker, C Sidney Crosby (Since the NHL lockout, only C Joe Thornton has a better assist per game average, 0.977 APG, than C Sidney Crosby, 0.866 APG).
Neal will be entering his 4th year. It should be noted that the 4th year has been a coming out party for many power forwards, including Lucic (62 pts), Getzlaf (91 pts) and Nash (57 pts). All signs point to the 11/12 being Neal’s coming out party. Let’s not forget that it’s also a contract year for the winger. Neal spent his first few seasons playing in a “tougher” defensive Western Conference. There is no doubt that he will enjoy the “more open” Eastern Conference and the opportunity to flank NHL poster boy Sidney Crosby. It’s a good time to be a Pens’ fan (then again, since the lockout when isn’t it?)
Both Neal and Crosby make it difficult for opposing teams to knock them off the puck. Together they could implement a Sedin cycle game or outwork opposing players against the boards. Penguins’ fans have a lot to look forward to this coming season, including the return of both Crosby and Malkin, a projected top 6 of James Neal, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Chris Kunitz, and a first power play unit of Neal-Crosby-Malkin Martin-Letang, that could potentially rival last year’s number one power play unit of D. Sedin-H.Sedin-Kesler Samuelsson-Ehrhoff of the Vancouver Canucks.
Behind The Bench appears Monday to Friday only on puckpuckgoose.com.
Editted by: Aneil Parashar