James Neal Season Preview: Trigger Man
The Predators draft day acquisition could become the high-scoring threat Nashville has yearned for its entire existence.
When the Predators aquired James Neal you could hear a collective gasp resonating through the hockey world. Nashville traded for a goal scorer. Neal scored 27 goals and 61 points in 59 games last year making him just over a point per game player for the second time in three years. There is no reason to believe the 27-year-old winger can't duplicate that level of production this year.
Plain and simple, Neal is a trigger man with a great shot. Since 2011 only Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby registered more shots than Neal for the Penguins. Last year he averaged 4.03 shots per game which was second to only Alexander Ovechkin, who had 4.95. Neal also led the Penguins with 11.44 shots/60. Basically, he shoots a ton.
One thing to watch is how quickly the puck leaves his stick when he's shooting. He always seems to be a beat ahead of the goalies when letting the puck fly. Laviolette has already said Neal and his former Dallas teammate Ribeiro will get a chance to rekindle any residual chemistry. But even if they don't, the Predators have a few options to play distributor.
Neal, Hornqvist and the Evgeni Malkin Effect
Can the Penguins expect to replace James Neal with Patric Hornqvist? And how much will Neal suffer now that he is no longer playing alongside one of the best players in the NHL every night?
Neal has only scored over 30 goals once, in 2011-2012 when he finished with 40. But in 2011 and 2012 lockout year he scored at a 0.50 (40 goals) and 0.53 (21 goals in 40 games) goals per game pace, respectively. Last year Neal scored 27 goals in 59 games for 0.46 goals per game. All three years he was top-10 in the league in goals per game. Neal's impressive shooting and scoring rate can partly be attributed to his zone starts. He started 57.9% of his starts in the offensive zone and that was the lowest it's been since 2010. But Neal wasn't aquired to play a shutdown roll with Mike Fisher so this shouldn't be a great concern because the numbers indicate he takes full advantage of his situations.
Neal doesn't come without his concerns, though. One reasonable concern is health. He's been through it all: Concussions, a phantom broken foot, and even survived wiffle ball attacks. Injuries are a part of the James Neal package. Last year he missed 18 games but the preview two years he only missed three games. Neal has been good about avoiding long term injuries, but he has had reoccuring foot issues and concussions.
The biggest things Preds fans should be worried about is Neal's history with suspensions. Last year he was suspended 5 games for kneeing Brad Marchand in the head. That was his third suspension. Neal has said he wants to learn from past mistakes but talk is cheap and one more suspension could mean he misses serious time, which isn't great for an offensive catalyst. Much like the injury concern, as long as he plays smart and does want to be better then he should be fine.
Best Case Scenario
Neal and Ribeiro click almost instantly and are able to maintain their chemistry for most of the season. Neal continues scoring at the rate he has in the past. His presence is a chain reaction and even Rich Clune starts to score.
Worst Case Scenario
Neal gets hurt on his way to an in-person hearing with the NHL's Department of Player Safety and can never get his game going.
Neal has a near 50 goal season and becomes a leader for Nashville. He'll miss a few games after another wiffle ball accident too.
Grizzly bear. Majestic, but prone to fits of rage where it attacks anything in its path.