James Neal attended his first NHL training in 2005 with the Dallas Stars as a wide-eyed 18-year-old. And what Neal learned at that first camp has forever shaped his career.
As the young winger watched veteran snipers like Bill Guerin and Jason Arnott snapping pucks from all over the ice, he had a revelation.
“When I saw those guys whipping the puck around I knew I needed to work on a few things,” Neal said. “Right from that day on I knew I had to get a better shot, harder shot, quicker release, if I wanted to play in the NHL.”
|James Neal (Getty Images)|
Neal start tweaking his curve, experimenting with different sticks and practicing on getting the puck off his stick faster and with some power. To say that he’s succeeded in his task would be a drastic understatement of immense proportions.
Neal, who is in the first year of a six-year contract, has transformed into one of the NHL’s elite goal scorers, thanks in large part to his shot. The red goal light glowed a career-high 40 times last season for him and he is currently tied for the NHL lead with 12 through 17 games this season. In fact, at his current rate in a normal 82-game season, Neal would be on pace for 57 goals.
“Everyone knew what he had in him,” said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who faces Neal everyday in practice. “Ray made a big trade to go get him. I don’t know if everyone expected him to score 40. I’m just happy that everything went well for him.”
Neal led the entire league last season with 18 power-play goals. And he isn’t about to relinquish his crown just yet. Neal already has eight man-advantage scores this season – three more than any other player in the league.
But Neal gives most of the credit for his success to the players around him.
“When you play with guys like ‘Sid,’ ‘Geno,’ (Chris Kunitz), (Kris Letang), the puck will find your stick,” he said. “Those guys are so highly skilled and good at moving the puck around, I just try to find spots and areas to get my shot off. They do a great job of finding me.”
Having the smarts to find those spots to get his shot off are also a major factor in Neal’s goal-scoring prowess.
"If you're going to make a book on a shooter and a guy getting open, just watch this guy play the game, both five-on-five and on the power play," head coach Dan Bylsma said. "He moves to get open. He can get his shot off real quick.”
Not only has Neal developed his shot, but he’s become one of the Penguins’ best defensive players, consistently backchecking, getting his stick in lanes and taking away space.
“You have to be good on both sides of the puck,” he said. “They say good offense comes from playing hard defense. If we do that we’ll get more opportunities to score.”
While his defensive talents may go overlooked by the average fan, Neal’s highlight reel goals over the past two seasons certainly have not. It’s also no coincidence that Neal’s offensive explosion has occurred since being put on a line with the reigning NHL MVP and scoring champion. Malkin is a premiere player, and it’s not easy for players to keep up with the dynamite Russian. It’s a credit to Neal for finding a way to mesh with his linemate.
“For me, I just read off him and adapt to what (Malkin’s) going to do,” Neal said. “I think we started off with great chemistry from Day 1. It’s carried over. We have a good feel for each other now.
“He likes to skate with (the puck) a lot. The more the puck is on his stick, the better chances we’ll have to score. He’ll get it back to me.”
And when he does get it back, Neal’s sick release has converted opportunities into goals at an efficient rate.
“(Neal’s) release is an elite release when he gets that opportunity,” Bylsma said.
And that “elite release” was born from a concerted effort after watching Guerin and Arnott at camp eight years earlier.
“I could see how those guys could score from all over the ice with their shots,” Neal said. “(My shot has) just gotten better and better over the years working on it.”