At the end of last season, I wrote an article analyzing James Neal’s disappointing first season with the Nashville Predators.
In that article, I was harshly critical of Neal, who had 37 points (23 goals, 14 assists) in 67 games, saying he would not be the same without his Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
Neal, 29, is having an impressive year for the Predators, scoring 30 goals and 51 points in 75 games. He has only hit the 30-goal mark once before in his career, and he is just the sixth player in Nashville franchise history to score that many in a single season. Along with Filip Forsberg, Neal can break the franchise’s single-season goal scoring record of 33, set by Jason Arnott in 2008-09.
Since March 1, Neal is tied for first in the league for the most goals scored with 10. He has 14 points through 12 games this month.
One of the primary reasons for Neal’s underproduction last season was not playing alongside an elite center. Mike Ribeiro has excellent vision and is a great passer, but he is not at the same level as Malkin.
Neal greatly benefited from the acquisition of Ryan Johansen, the organization’s first true top-line center. The winger has 27 points (15 g, 11 a) in 35 games since Johansen joined the Predators on Jan. 8. Prior to the move, Neal had just 24 points (15 g, 9 a) in 40 games.
While I am sure Neal would love to play alongside Malkin again, he is evidently doing just fine with Johansen.
Neal may not have the ground-breaking speed to blow past defenders, but his pinpoint accurate shot is deadly for opposing netminders.
“[Neal’s] got an unbelievable shot,” said Filip Forsberg after a 5-1 win versus the Columbus Blue Jackets Saturday. “He’s been really showing the fans and the team what he can do. It’s been unbelievable to watch him.”
The playoffs are just weeks away, and if Neal can continue generating similar offensive numbers, the Predators will make a deep run for the Stanley Cup.