Ongoing education, particularly for new hockey fans, is job one at The Hockey Writers. Today we continue that mission, on our quest to educate Vegas locals on those players that will now be referred to as the Golden Knights.
Earlier this week we gave you a primer on Vadim Shipachyov, a KHL product who has all the tools to be a dynamic if not spectacular offensive weapon for VGK. While Shipachyov is new to the NHL, today’s entry, James Neal, is certainly not. He’s got nearly a decade in this league and is among the most decorated players to relocate to Vegas for the first season in franchise history.
So read up, Vegas fans. We’ll give you a rundown on a couple of these guys each week and hopefully have you up to speed by the time the Golden Knights kick off the preseason against the Vancouver Canucks on Sep 17. Here are the basics you should know about Neal.
How Did Neal Get Here?
It’s been a wild few months for Neal. The veteran of nine NHL seasons reached hockey’s heights last season when his Nashville Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. His squad would fall in six games, and Neal struggled against the Pens. We later learned he played despite the broken hand he suffered in the Western Conference Finals.
It could be argued that Neal took a step back during the 2016-17 campaign when he collected 23 goals and 18 assists in 70 games. The season prior was his top effort with the Preds, with 31 goals and 27 assists. That year, his second of three with Nashville, he set a franchise record with a plus/minus of +27 and earned NHL All-Star honors for the second time.
Prior to his run with the Predators, Neal spent four seasons with the Penguins. That was after three years in Dallas, the team that spent the number 33 overall pick on the Ontario product in 2005.
Now he’s a Golden Knight. If the crowd’s reaction at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas last month is any indicator, he’s a welcome addition. Vegas general manager George McPhee was able to strike a deal with many other NHL GMs in the interest of allowing those clubs to retain assets when they did not have the protected slots to do so. It’s fair to suspect that Neal is a player Nashville would have preferred to hold on to, particularly given their recent success. Whether that’s untrue or McPhee’s asking price was too high, we’ll not know, but he’ll now play a prominent role in the early story of the Golden Knights.
Where Does Neal Fit In?
If Shipachyov represents a key offensive acquisition that Vegas fans are unlikely to be familiar with, Neal is likely to be a more recognizable name among new fans.
Forgetting for a moment that he may end up being an attractive bargaining chip at next year’s trade deadline should the Golden Knights have the opportunity to strike a deal with a contender, Neal is headed for Vegas’ top line. With Shipachyov at the center position, opportunities should be plentiful.
That would be fine with Golden Knights bench boss Gerard Gallant. Now, that’s not to say that he’ll produce another season like his 40-goal, 40-assist campaign he put together during his All-Star season in Pittsburgh. But while Vegas takes the very logical step of building for long-term success through the NHL Draft, they’re not going to struggle as mightily as some expansion teams of the past.
Neal’s not a spectacular point producer, but he’s consistent. He’s topped 20 goals every season of his NHL career. He’s a big, physical player, often to a fault. Penalties can be a problem, so too is his defensive effort which can be underwhelming at times.
Still,the positives outweigh the negatives here, particularly for an expansion team in a foreign market that aims to compete, but also needs to ensure they put an entertaining product on the ice. Neal fits the bill to a ‘T’.
Now we can talk about his role as a bargaining chip. Neal is only under contract for 2017-18. Obviously, the possibility exists that he will not be with the Golden Knights after the 2017-18 season. He’s the kind of veteran presence that is often obtained at the trade deadline by a team gearing up for a playoff run. But Vegas isn’t going to a be a playoff team in year one or two anyway, so why is it important that a fan looking into consuming the newest entertainment option on the Las Vegas Strip know that contractual detail?
Maybe you shouldn’t buy his jersey just yet.
Las Vegas local covering Golden Knights hockey since 2016.
Ball State University ’05
Credentialed NBA writer covering the Phoenix Suns,
Credentialed NCAA football writer covering the UNLV Rebels