With the NHL season less than two weeks old one of the early season headlines is the 5-0-0 start by the Edmonton Oilers. Two of the key cogs behind that red-hot start by the Oilers (who have won each game in come-from-behind fashion) have been a change behind the bench with Dave Tippett and the goal-scoring prowess of James Neal.
Neal, who was acquired in a late-summer afterthought swap with the Calgary Flames for Milan Lucic, currently leads the entire NHL with seven goals in just five games. Prior to last season when he only managed seven goals in 63 games with the Flames, Neal had put up at least 21 goals in each of his ten seasons.
Real Deal Neal
On Oct. 10 in New Jersey Neal potted goal no. seven in just his fourth game but the veteran wasn’t interested in comparing this season to last season. “It’s not crazy to me, I mean I’ve scored my whole career,” Neal told The Hockey Writers amid a throng of media in the Oilers dressing room. “I scored 20-plus goals ten years in a row, so I have scored goals before. It’s funny how things turn pretty quick when you have an off-year.”
Neal added that his confidence is buoyed by the faith and trust that the organization and coaching staff have show in him. Look out league, the Real Deal Neal is back and brimming with confidence. He could be that veteran presence that the Oilers have been forever lacking, and he’s having fun again too. He’s just one season removed from being in the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons with the Predators and Golden Knights.
“Whatever last season was, it really doesn’t matter anymore. I’m having fun here, I’m in a great spot with a great opportunity here and I’m just trying to take advantage of it. Our team is playing great right now.”
Friendly Faces in New Places
The change behind the bench in Edmonton can’t be overlooked and in Tippett, the Oilers have a coach that knows Neal very well from when they were together in Dallas. The 32-year-old veteran beamed when asked about his new, old coach. “I had Tipp as a rookie, he was my first coach in Dallas, so I know him really well. He’s great, communicates really well, puts in a really good system for us and lets us play,” raved Neal. “If you work and do the right things you are going to get ice-time. It’s pretty black and white with him and that’s all you can really ask for is that honesty. I think any guy in this room would do anything for him (and) it’s showed in our start.”
It’s extremely early but the points in the standings gained now are just as valuable as the points gained in February and March. “You have to find ways to win in this league,” said Tippett. “It’s a process and we have to continue to find ways to get better.” Edmonton is tied with the Carolina Hurricanes atop the entire NHL standings and the Colorado Avalanche are the only other Western Conference team currently without a loss.
“We wanted to get off to a good start and buy into Tipp’s system,” said Neal. “We’ve just tried to build off of each game and get better. The guys have bought in and are playing for each other so we’ve become a team really quickly.”
It’s shown in how they haven’t panicked when falling behind by at least one goal in all five games they’ve played, including the last three on the road sweeping the NY-NJ road trip. “We have a lot of character in this room and we’re not going down easy. So we feel like if we stick around in games and get a chance on the power play that we’re going to bury it. I thought that showed tonight (in New Jersey),” Neal said. “We’re getting timely goals, getting those chances and working hard.
“We have good guys behind the bench that are helping us throughout the game and all of the players are buying in and enjoying being on this team.”
It also helps that the Oilers have two of the best players in the game today in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But perhaps now they have just the right wingman and coach to help get them to that next level. “We played a little sluggish tonight but I like the way we hung around and battled,” said Tippett of his team rallying three times from one-goal deficits in New Jersey. “They can’t all be masterpieces, so we’ll take the win and move on.”
The game may not have been a masterpiece, but the Oilers start to the season surely has been. Neal’s start to his Edmonton career has been pretty neat too.
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.