Neal Joins Predators With High Expectations
Playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins alongside two former Hart Trophy winners in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, left wing James Neal was not looked upon to be a leader or to carry the load offensively.
He said he is embracing the challenge.
"To have an opportunity to be a leader and to be the guy is something I've always wanted to be and tried to be as a young player coming into the League," Neal said during a conference call Monday. "I feel like I'm at that stage of my game where I'm willing to take care of that responsibility and drive with it. I'm excited for the challenge. It's going to be fun. When you play this game and you want to be the best, high expectations come with that and you want those expectations."
Nashville tied for 18th in the League last season in goals per game at 2.61 and is in the midst of an organizational overhaul to provide more offense. Neal, who ranks third in the NHL in goals over the past three seasons with 88, represents a major part of that effort. So does new coach Peter Laviolette, who leads a staff with two new assistants that includes Kevin McCarthy, who won a Stanley Cup with Laviolette with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. Three regular players already are gone from last season's lineup – Hornqvist, Spaling and defenseman Michael Del Zotto, whom the Predators elected not to make a qualifying offer prior to the deadline on Monday. Del Zotto will become an unrestricted free agent.
Neal said he thinks he is arriving at an advantageous time.
"With the changes happening in Nashville, I think it's going to be a little bit different for everybody," he said. "That's going to help me."
Neal is bullish on the Predators, who missed qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs by three points this past season and played without injured goalie Pekka Rinne for more than 50 games. Rinne is a two-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy and led the NHL in wins in 2011-2012.
Neal said of the Predators that "everything is there" for them to be successful.
"You look at what Nashville did last year, playing over 50 games without their best player and their goaltender in Pekka Rinne," he said. "Our defense is unbelievable, starting with Shea Weber. Obviously, things are changing here. We're going to be a more offensive team. I talked to coach Laviolette, there's nothing but a bright future ahead."
Neal ought to be somewhat familiar with the style that Laviolette employs. Neal played parts of four seasons with the Penguins and played in the same division as their arch-rival Philadelphia Flyers. Laviolette served as Flyers coach for 57 games during the 2009-10 season until the first three games of this past season, when he was relieved of his duties.
Neal noted how in the teams' 2012 playoff matchup, one of the highest-scoring in recent memory, the Flyers scored 27 goals in the six games to win the series. Neal said that he liked Laviolette's approach and spoke of how the Flyers and Penguins "had good battles."
Neal also should strengthen a Predators power play that already excels. In 2011-12, his 18 power-play goals led the NHL. Nashville finished with the League's 12th-ranked power play in 2013-14 but for much of the season the Predators ranked in the top 10.
In some ways coming to the Predators and the Western Conference will represent something familiar for Neal, while at the same time it was still a shock for him to leave one of the Eastern Conference's top teams. Neal was drafted by the Dallas Stars and spent parts of his first three seasons with them before he was traded to Pittsburgh. He said he feels his style is well suited to that of the rugged West.
Nonetheless, he said the news of his trade to Nashville gave him a jolt. He was in Virginia, Minn., attending the wedding of former teammate Matt Niskanen, with whom Neal is close, and both players came up together with the Stars and were traded to Pittsburgh together. The scene recalled a similar episode two years ago when the Penguins traded center Jordan Staal to the Hurricanes and Staal was at a wedding with most of his teammates.
Again, Jim Rutherford played a central role. In 2012, he was the Hurricanes' general manager. This time, as the Penguins' GM, he called Neal, who said he had trouble receiving a strong cell phone signal. Neal said with all of the mixed emotions, it was better to be with his now former teammates than to have been alone.
The trade of Neal and the recent hiring of Rutherford following the firing of former Penguins GM Ray Shero are some of the changes Pittsburgh has made since its disappointing loss in the Eastern Conference Second Round to the New York Rangers. Pittsburgh, which was swept in the 2013 conference finals, blew a 3-1 series lead.
Neal was asked what he thought went wrong with the Penguins.
"I think any time when you're surrounded by guys like Crosby and Malkin and [Kris] Letang, you have expectations to win," he said. "Sometimes those can hurt you a little bit. It's hard to put your finger on why we didn't succeed, but when you don't win change is needed. … It was tough, but it was a fun time. It's too bad we didn't succeed."
Now, his charge will be to help the Predators succeed. As he does, he also will attempt to continue to play with an edge while not going over it. In December, he was suspended five games for kneeing Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand.
Neal said in his desire to become a power forward, he has wanted to show a physical side. But the 26-year-old also hopes to show maturity.
"Sometimes your emotion gets the better of you," he said. "Obviously, [there are] things that happened in my game that you regret. Guys change and you become better for it. I think I've changed as a player. I'm still young. Those things happen. I'm going to learn. I'm going to be better for it. I want to concentrate on being a leader on this team and taking my game to the next level."