James Neal couldn’t have asked for a better start to his first season with the Edmonton Oilers. Neal leads the NHL in goals with six after scoring two power play markers in a 6-5 win over the Los Angeles Kings on Saturday and a career-high four goals in a 5-2 victory against the New York Islanders on Tuesday. He was credited with the game-winning goal in both contests.
The 32-year-old was the first Oiler to score four goals in a game since Connor McDavid on Feb. 8, 2018, in an 8-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was also Neal’s seventh career NHL hat trick and second natural hat trick. Although he had a career-low seven goals during his only season with the Calgary Flames in 2018-19, the 10-time 20-goal scorer never doubted his ability to put the puck in the net.
“I’ve scored my whole career,” Neal told Oilers TV following his four-goal performance at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. “I’ve put pressure on myself to be a goal scorer and I wanted that pressure. Last year was a tough year and I wanted the chance to prove myself, and obviously things worked out in the summer with a trade. I came [to the Oilers] and had people who believed in me and believed that I could bounce back and help this team win and help this team get into the playoffs.”
A Steal for the Oilers
After watching former general manager (GM) Peter Chiarelli regularly get fleeced in deals during his time in Edmonton, new GM Ken Holland refreshingly won a trade for the Oilers when he shipped Milan Lucic and his boat-anchor of a contract to the rival Flames for Neal in July. Neal, who spent most of last season playing bottom-six minutes with the Flames, is in a much better position to succeed with the Oilers.
The perennial 20-goal scorer looks to have locked down a spot on the second line alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and as the net-front presence on the top power play unit. Moreover, Neal had a full offseason to train for the first time in three years following consecutive trips to the Stanley Cup Final with the Nashville Predators in 2017 and the Vegas Golden Knights in 2018.
“I’m playing with great players and it feels good,” Neal told Oilers TV. “I put in a lot of work this summer to feel good and to feel confident again and know that I can be the impact player I want to be. As a goal scorer you want to see that puck go in the back of the net, and obviously I didn’t see that last year. But I’ve been put in a great position here to play with [Nugent-Hopkins] for a couple games and I thought he’s been really good and a lot of fun to play with.”
Now, Neal isn’t going to maintain a 42.9% shooting percentage for the entire season. But given the quality of his linemates and the amount of power play time he’s expected to see, Neal should be a key contributor for Edmonton this season. The Whitby, Ontario native has averaged 248.8 shots on goal per 82 games throughout his NHL career. So, if Neal stays healthy and shoots around his career average of 11.8%, he should put up at least 21 goals in 2019-20.
Burning Desire to Win
One of the biggest issues that has plagued the Oilers over the past decade has been a lack of skilled veterans to surround their young stars with. In James Neal, the Oilers not only get a one-shot scorer with great size, they also get a guy who is hungry to win a Cup before he hangs up his skates. This makes Neal the perfect fit on a McDavid-led team.
Aside from his obvious gifts, McDavid is an ultra-competitive player who hates to lose as much as anyone in the league, and he’s not interested in missing the playoffs for a fourth time in his first five NHL seasons. McDavid and Neal have clicked early on with the man advantage, which has given the Oilers power play a completely different look than last season. The fact that they are close friends off the ice is just a bonus.
“Connor McDavid fought for [Ken Holland to acquire] James Neal,” said Elliotte Friedman during his segment on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid. “He made it very clear that when this was presented to him, he wanted it to happen. He skates with Neal, he knows Neal really well, and they’re both Gary Roberts guys. And another really powerful motivator is that James Neal knows that when guys like Connor McDavid say ‘let’s do it,’ you have to live up to that.”
It’s still early, but if the Oilers can get even average support scoring and goaltending this season, the top guns might be able to carry this team to a wild-card spot.
Eric Friesen is a freelance sports broadcaster and journalist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Eric has diplomas in Broadcasting from Mount Royal University in Calgary and Sports Journalism from Centennial College in Toronto. A lifelong hockey fan, Eric has followed the Edmonton Oilers for more than 20 years. He cheers for the Oilers because of his hockey hero Wayne Gretzky, who played his more productive seasons in Oil Country.