When the Nashville Predators acquired James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first round of the 2014 NHL Entry Draft in June, some experts were quick to point out Neal’s past production was aided by playing alongside Evgeni Malkin. The Predators also sent back one of their top goal scorer from the past season in Patric Hornqvist so Neal had a lot to prove coming into the 2014-15 season. So far, all he’s done is score, score and score some more. Through 10 games Neal has found the back of the net seven times, finding great chemistry with former Dallas Stars’ teammate Mike Ribeiro.
If he can keep up this pace, Neal could become the first Predator to score 40 goals in a season. Jason Arnott holds the team’s single season record with 33 goals in the 2008-09 season and is one of just four Predators to post more than 30 in a season. The others are Steve Sullivan and Paul Kariya, who each netted 31 in 2005-06, and the man traded for Neal, Patric Hornqvist in 2009-10. Since Hornqvist’s 30 goals five seasons ago, the Preds have had just one player score 25 or more (also Hornqvist).
Neal should easily become the fifth Predator to score 30 but the elusive 40 would cement him as one of the elite goal scorers in the league. Last season, only three players cracked the 40-goal mark: Alex Ovechkin (51), Corey Perry (43) and Joe Pavelski (41). Neal is just two years removed from scoring 40 with the Penguins and is on pace for more than 55 but it’s unlikely he can continue to find the back of the net at this rate all season long. His 18.1% shooting percentage is well above his career average of 12.7% so while the goals are going in fast and furious right now, it likely won’t be that way all year. But Neal is a player with all the right tools to accomplish the feat.
Another thing Neal has going for him is just one of his goals this season has been scored with the man advantage. With Neal’s shot the power play could be a great way to inflate his goal totals, if the Predators can ever get their power play on track. Through the opening 10 games, Nashville’s managed just three goals in 28 opportunities with the man advantage. There is a ton of room for improvement there but Coach Peter Laviolette remains confident despite the struggles.
“I do think if we continue to do the right things and have the right mindset, the goals will come,” Laviolette told The Predatorial.
For Neal, the goals have already come but if he wants to make Predators history he’ll have to prove he can do it over a full 82-game schedule without the help of Malkin.