Coward (noun): “a person who shows shameful lack of courage or fortitude.”
That definition comes from thefreedictionary.com. Alongside it should be a picture of Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal. Neal, now in his sixth NHL season, has recently cemented himself as one of the dirtiest players in the NHL. There is no denying that he’s a talented player. Over the past three seasons, only Steven Stamkos and Alexander Ovechkin scored at a better goal-per-game clip. However, his questionable hits are overshadowing his accomplishments and demonstrating his complete lack of respect for fellow NHL players.
Neal has now been suspended three different times, and fined once. Let’s walk through each of those (and one other) plays and break them down
Hit From Behind on Derek Dorsett (November 19th, 2009)
In the first incident, we see the puck sitting at Derek Dorsett’s feet as a number of players are battling for the puck. Dorsett is facing the boards for a few seconds as James Neal skates in and delivers a hit from behind. Dorsett does not turn at the last second or put himself in a sudden vulnerable position. Neal could see his numbers the entire way, yet he decided to deliver the hit anyway. The ugly result of Dorsett being knocked unconscious could have been avoided by Neal wrapping Dorsett up and pinning him against the boards instead of delivering a hit square in the numbers. James Neal was suspended two games for this incident.
Hit on Petr Prucha (February 13th, 2010)
Next, we see Petr Prucha make a routine dump-in into the offensive zone. As he is along the boards, James Neal comes along and finishes his check. Normally, finishing his check that soon after Prucha had gotten rid of the puck would be fine. The dirty part about this hit is that Neal made Prucha’s head the principal point of contact of the check. He was in perfect position to deliver a hard, clean shoulder-on-shoulder check. But, you can see him wind up his shoulder/elbow and drive it into Prucha’s head, smashing his head into the glass and knocking him unconscious.
It is difficult to see whether the elbow or shoulder makes contact with Prucha, but it is clear that Neal winds up his upper body and delivers the hit with Prucha’s head as the point of contact. Surprisingly, he was not suspended for the incident.
Hits on Sean Couturier & Claude Giroux (April 15th, 2012)
In the next incident, we see Neal make two dangerous plays on the same shift. The first is a hit on Sean Couturier, where it is clear that Neal leaves his feet and launches himself to make contact. There are two problems with this hit. The first is that Couturier had lost possession for the puck long enough that he should not have expected to be hit by someone “finishing their check”. The second is that he clearly leaves his feet before contact is made. In many cases, it appears a player leaves their feet, but in reality they are sent airborne as a result of the collision. This is not the case here. James Neal clearly leaves his feet to make a late hit on a player that does not have the puck.
On the second hit, Neal attempts to deliver a hit on Claude Giroux. In this case, Giroux is in possession of the puck, and Neal is in position to deliver a clean, hard check in open ice. Instead, he leaves his feet before he makes any contact with Giroux, and leads with his arms and elbows out in the direction of Giroux’s head. He had the ability to deliver a good hit, but deliberately left his feet and targeted Giroux’s head with the hit. Neal was suspended one game for the two combined incidents.
Knee on Brad Marchand (December 7th, 2013)
Of all the incidents Neal has had, this one is by far the worst. With Brad Marchand down on the ice, James Neal skates by him and delivers a knee square to the side of Marchand’s head. After the game, this is what Neal had to say about the incident:
“I was skating by him,” Neal said, noting he had not seen a replay of his hit, which resulted in a minor penalty for kneeing. “I hit him in the head with my leg or my foot or my knee or my shin area; I don’t know. He went down. I guess I need to try and avoid him.”
This incident, more than any other, demonstrates why James Neal is the dirtiest player in the NHL. Despite the fact that there is video evidence of Neal looking down to see Marchand on the ice, and changing his path of direction to direct his knee into Marchand’s head, he claims he did nothing intentionally. As you probably know, later in the game, Shawn Thornton punched Brooks Orpik and knocked him out. After the game, Thornton was reportedly in tears about what he did. Neal showed no remorse.
In terms of intent, I would wager what Neal did was worse than what Thornton did. In all of my years of watching hockey, never before had I seen a player intentionally knee another player in the head while he was on the ice. While the result of Thornton’s actions (a suckerpunch with his glove on) had a very unfortunate result, it was a play that happens fairly regularly in the NHL. Enforcers Chris Neil and Jay Rosehill agree:
“That’s worse to me than Thornton,” Neil said of Neal. “He deliberately goes with a knee to the head and that starts the whole thing. Shawn is not a guy like that, either, so something must have happened.”
“That’s dirty, (Neal) is not doing his job,” said Rosehill. “He’s not doing anything. I don’t know why you would do that. I would look at that as being a lot more frustrating to watch than what Thornton did.”
Cross-Check on Luke Glendening (March 20th, 2014)
This brings us to last night’s incident, where James Neal shows no respect or regard for his fellow player’s safety. Out of frustration, he cross-checks Luke Glendening in the head. There was no attempt to play the puck or the body. Neal simply takes his stick and drives it into Glendening’s face. This incident looks quite similar to when Arron Asham cross-checked Brayden Schenn in the face in the 2012 playoffs.
Asham was suspended four games for the incident. Neal was fined just $5,000, which amounts to less than 1/5 of his daily paycheck.
James Neal’s Repeated Dirty Play
Why does James Neal continue to show no respect or regard for his fellow players’ safety? Because the league lets him get away with it. He’s a star player, so his punishments have not matched the crime. He’s been suspended a total of 8 games and fined $5,000 combined for all of the above offenses. If he was a 4th line enforcer, you can bet that he would be getting heftier punishments than he has.
On top of the dirty hits, Neal has refused to answer the bell for his actions. His six career fights were against Derrick Brassard, Matt Greene, Theo Peckham, Martin Hanzal, Andrew Ference, and Keith Ballard, hardly a tough group. He doesn’t show the fortitude to stand up for his actions.
The common thread of all these dirty plays is that Neal easily could have avoided them by keeping his arms down, not leaving his feet, and applying a hard, clean body check. Instead, he chose to hit from behind, leave his feet, lead with his elbows, knee players, and cross-check players in the face. Among NHL players, there is a code and expectation of respect for fellow players. James Neal’s lack of respect, and the fortitude required to follow the code, makes him the NHL’s biggest coward.
For those that think I am a biased Flyers fan (of which there are many), longtime NHL referee Paul Stewart ironically wrote an article about Neal as well this morning, titled James Neal: The Poster Child for What’s Wrong With NHL Discipline System. It’s a terrific read. From the second and third paragraphs
I have seen enough of Neal’s play over the years with the Dallas Stars and Pittsburgh to know that he is a very gifted offensive player with size, skill and an explosive shot. At age 26, he’s already been a 40-goal scorer in the NHL and he’ll probably do it a few more times in years to come if he stays healthy.
I have also seen enough of his play to know something else: James Neal is not my type of hockey player. He has been involved in multiple incidents, showing reckless disregard for the safety of fellow players. Furthermore, he’s a player who has acquired the reputation for being a diver.