PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins’ 3-2 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 3 Monday night was a team effort.
15 skaters received a +1 for the Penguins.
Some definitely earned that plus/minus rating (Ben Lovejoy absorbing a Steve Downie ‘launching’ while Max Talbot went on to score the first goal).
Others, not so much (Kris Letang assisted on the second goal, but he and Brooks Orpik hopped off the ice just seconds later to allow Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek to celebrate with teammates).
Surprisingly, the three players who remained even on the night make up what’s considered to be the Penguins’ top offensive line: Mark Letestu, Alex Kovalev, and James Neal.
Of the trio, the spotlight shines brightest on Neal. The 6-foot-2 power forward came over with Matt Niskanen from Dallas just prior to the trade deadline in a deal that sent Alex Goligoski the other way.
By all accounts the coaching staff and front office are happy with his play.
“James has done and continues to do a lot of good things for our team,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s a guy who has a very dangerous shot. He’s been able to get that off at times and has been really consistent in firing the puck and getting opportunities. That’s something he can’t get away from, getting himself in those shooting areas and shooting the puck, because that’s where he’s dangerous and that’s his weapon.”
While Bylsma said Neal’s greatest weapon is his ability to shoot the puck, Penguins GM Ray Shero told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that beating the goalie with that shot is not necessarily part of the team’s expectations:
“He was not brought here to score goals,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said, fairly biting off his words before the Devils game. “He was brought here because he’s a good young hockey player. He has too many qualities going for him for me to be concerned about him. You don’t see many guys with his size and youth who can release the puck like he can. I’m certain he’s going to be a very good player here.”
In that sense, Neal has certainly not been a disappointment. He continues to shoot the puck more often than he did in Dallas (2.60 shots per game vs 2.48 with the Stars) and has been one of Pittsburgh’s most physical forecheckers over the past month and a half.
Unfortunately, effective forechecking doesn’t necessarily translate to wins at this time of year. Despite Shero’s understandable defense of the 23-year-old, the Penguins will probably need Neal to score more than one goal if they want to make a serious run for the Stanley Cup this season:
- 2010-11 Season
- Before March – 21 goals in 62 games (0.34 goals/game)
- After March – 1 goal in 20 games (0.05 goals/game)
- 2009-10 Season
- Before March – 24 goals in 57 games (0.42 goals/game)
- After March – 3 goals in 21 games (0.14 goals/game)
Neal’s late-season struggles in the scoring department are nothing new for the youngster. Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk said last offseason that Neal needed to avoid those slumps if he really wanted to tap into his full potential:
“James is making great progress, but he has to be more consistent, and that’s just something that happens with any young player,” said Nieuwendyk. “He started out so strong, and we know he has the ability to keep up that pace. But it’s just a matter of going in and finding the way to stay both physically and mentally strong.”
The physical and mental aspects of James Neal’s game became curiously tangled on November 19, 2009.
At that point just 18 games into the season, Neal had already accumulated 11 goals and 11 assists. He was Dallas’ best player over the first month and a half and it looked like his upside was limitless.
Then Derek Dorsett got in the way:
Just days before the hit occurred, the NHL GM’s had met and talked about finding ways to eliminate hits from behind and head injuries. Neal received a two-game suspension for the headshot and learned he would be branded with the tag of “repeat offender” if he ever slipped up again.
According to some the hit wasn’t particularly vicious, but the after-effects certainly were. Dorsett had a few choice words for Neal and even questioned his character based on their meetings in junior hockey:
“He can say he’s sorry I was hurt. He can say he was going too fast to stop. But there was no attempt to slow down. If anything, he sped up and drove right through the hit, his elbow into the back of my head. He can say whatever he wants, but that’s a really cheap hit.”
Neal insists that the suspension didn’t change the way he plays, but anyone who saw the ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions would tell you now that he only shows flashes of his former self as a wrecking ball forechecker.
“I’m playing the way I want to play and I’m playing the style that the Penguins play,” Neal said after a Game 2 loss to Tampa last week. “If I’m getting the chances and shooting the puck well, it’s eventually going to go in.”
If we take Neal’s word on his late-season struggles and assume he’s not lacking confidence, what about his physical conditioning?
Neal trained with 25 other players under the guidance of fitness-freak Gary Roberts last offseason. One attendee described the program at Camp Roberts as “one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”
Any old-timer will tell you that back in their day, the summer was used to rest and recharge the body after a grueling season. Roberts is hailed as the God of Hockey Conditioning, but why are we so quick to assume that the intense year-round regimen he used to prolong his career makes sense for other players?
Another one of Roberts’ disciples is Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos. Like Neal, Stamkos exploded out of the gate this season with 21 goals in his first 22 games before fading down the stretch. I’m still convinced a lingering injury will be revealed when Stamkos’ season finally ends, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact he has just 4 goals in the past 25 games (one being of the empty-net variety).
Even if Roberts does know the secrets to offseason conditioning, he doesn’t follow his students around during the season. It’s their responsibility to take the lessons they learn in the summer training and apply them year-round.
As Stamkos and Neal battle to break out of their respective slumps, the spotlight will only shine brighter and brighter.
If Tampa gets bounced in the first round and Stamkos continues to struggle, the Lightning faithful and front office will spend the offseason questioning how much the restricted free agent is really worth.
If Pittsburgh blows a 2-1 series lead and Neal can’t find the back of the net, he won’t be able to sidestep comparisons to last year’s deadline-dud Alexei Ponikarovsky.
In a sense, it’s not fair to James Neal. Anyone brought in by Shero at the trade deadline following the injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin was going to be met with heavy expectations to fill the scoring void.
Kovalev has just three goals in a Penguins uniform, but he also only cost Shero a conditional seventh-round pick. Acquiring Neal meant sacrificing Goligoski, a budding offensive defenseman that was garnering a great deal of attention from NHL GM’s.
To only make matters worse, Goligoski thrived in his new role with Dallas. He scored 15 points in 23 games and stepped up as a leader for the Stars as they made a desperate playoff push.
While it’s far too soon to declare Shero and the Penguins a loser in Neal-Niskanen-Goligoski swap, Brandon Worley actually suggested at the time of the deal that league-wide expectations for Neal might have overshot his true value:
It’s been a near unanimous decision on who “won” this trade and right now the Penguins are looking like gold coming out of the transaction. Forget the fact that it’s impossible to judge a trade before either player even sets foot on the ice for his team, but it’s amazing to see just how one-sided the reaction.
All of this tells me just how esteemed James Neal was around the NHL, just how much people who cover the NHL think of him and his potential as a forward and it makes me wonder just how much the Stars could have received in return for Neal if they had only been keen to his true potential.
Of course, the writers covering the NHL don’t make these trades. These guys aren’t the ones who put the real value on James Neal — the ones that are running these teams are the ones who determine the trade value of players around the NHL and in this trade James Neal was only worth half of Alex Goligoski.
In another piece that almost sounded like sour grapes with regards to his team losing players as a result of ownership turmoil, Worley’s words have become prophetic in hindsight:
…All we talk about is “potential” while we wait for the old Neal to show back up. There’s a very likely chance that Neal’s value will plummet as he continues to struggle to create offense on his own and now more than ever the Stars are looking at the highest value they’d get for him.
For now, Neal’s scoring drought can be stomached as long as the Penguins are winning games.
They’ve tallied a 15-6-3 record since he was acquired and maybe all it will take is a big playoff goal to get the monkey off his back as THW’s Justin Glock suggested yesterday:
“Most players would be non-factors for the remainder of the playoffs if they were in Neal’s shoes. Any other player in a goal scoring drought similar to Neal’s would quit back-checking and not contribute in any way. Neal continues to get fantastic scoring chances every game, and he continues to create scoring opportunities for his teammates. Just wait until Neal scores a huge goal down the road in the playoffs. All his hard work will finally pay off.”
Neal hasn’t quit on himself yet. His teammates still have faith. His coach and GM are behind him.
Reasonable or not, the spotlight is on James Neal. When will the show begin?