James Neal scored 24 goals in his rookie season with the Dallas Stars, and over the next nine seasons, he produced 21+ goals each year. The fewest, 21, came in the lockout-shortened 2013 season and the most, 40, occurred the previous year, 2012, both with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
In the first ten years of his career, he produced 21 or more goals. He did it with four different organizations: Dallas, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Las Vegas.
His consistency earned him a five-year contract with a $5.75 million cap from Calgary last summer. Neal and the Flames expected he would score 21 goals. It didn’t happen. In fact, he wasn’t close, producing only seven goals and 19 points in 63 games with the Flames.
What went wrong?
I spoke with Neal a few days after he was acquired by the Edmonton Oilers to get a better sense of what happened last season?
“I think it was a combination of things,” said Neal. “You never like making excuses or whining or anything like that, but I think coming off of back-to-back losses in the Stanley Cup finals, and just what you do to get to that point and what you put your body through, I think that any guy who’s been there and won or lost in the finals will tell you how much of a grind it is and how hard it is. And then to do it (lose) two years in a row was tough.
“Anytime you lose it kind of wears you mentally. I think maybe I just was not ready for another quick turnaround and going to a new team. There was a lot of stuff going on and I loved my time in Vegas and having things not work out there and then go to Calgary… that it was hard for me.”
His response gave me pause. I hadn’t thought about two consecutive Cup Final losses. I don’t see it as an excuse, just the reality of what he went through. He was on two different teams, lost both times, and then signed in Calgary. Did prognosticators overlook this fact? Probably. I know I did.
Neal believes he can return to his 20-goal ways.
“Looking back on it, everything happens for a reason, but I think for me having a long summer now and being able to get back into the gym, getting the body back to where you need it to be and then getting back to skating earlier and being ready for a big season, I think that’s going to help me out a lot. I have another fresh start. I’m really excited about that.”
When you struggle or fail to meet your own expectations, you have two choices. You can let it beat you down, or you can learn from it.
WHAT DID HE LEARN?
So I asked Neal. What did last year teach you about yourself? How is James Neal a better person now than you were a year ago?
“I think you learn a lot about yourself,” he said. “You learn how hard it is to score in this league, how hard it is to be successful in this league, and you can’t take anything for granted.
“For me, it was a little bit of a humbling, a time to reset. I know what kind of player I am. I know what kind of person I am, I know what I can bring to a team. Things didn’t work out the way we wanted them to in Calgary and now I find myself on a different team.
So, I’m excited about this upcoming opportunity. I think I’m in some of the best shape of my life and I’ve had the chance to do that and to skate early and to train and to do everything I need to do to get ready. I’m looking forward to this opportunity and I think that with the way the Oilers are shaped up and the way that things are changing there with management and coaching staff I think that we’re going to have a great new look. We’re going to have a team that has a lot to prove, and even guys individually are going to have a lot to prove. That’s going to be a good thing.”
He should be confident in his ability to return to his goal-scoring ways. He is currently tied with Bobby Orr at 250th for most NHL goals with 270. He knows how to score goals. His 31 playoff goals have him tied for 165th all-time in the NHL.
Yet, despite all that, many seem prepared to write him off because of a horrible 63-game season where he produced only seven goals. I understand the age factor. You can’t discount it, but I don’t think age is why Neal fell off a cliff last year.
There isn’t one factor when a consistent goal scorer suddenly stops doing what he’s done well for a decade. He explained his mindset, and I believe that is arguably the biggest reason for success of any athlete.
Professional athletes work hard. Often the best ones work the hardest, so I don’t think Neal’s struggles were due to a lack of work ethic. I think it is fair to consider fatigue, or lack of a proper training after two appearances in the Cup Finals, as one factor.
I’d heard about Neal and Bill Peters not getting off on the right foot. Was it true? I have no idea, so I decided to ask Neal.
Was there some friction there between you and Bill Peters?
“No, I don’t think so,” replied Neal. “I think for us, for me, signing a long-term deal in Calgary I wanted to come in and be a top-six guy. Obviously that didn’t happen and for me that was kind of frustrating. For me, it snowballed from the start of the year and once that starts going, your confidence starts going and everything is a battle. You know how it is with how mentally strong you have to be throughout the year. If you want to be your best you have to be playing. For me I just felt like I wasn’t and it was hard,” said Neal.
His response was interesting. He focused on his views. He couldn’t speak for Peters. Neal wanted to be a top-six player regularly, and when they didn’t happen he admitted he was frustrated. Then his confidence waned, and when that happens it is very difficult to find success. That isn’t an excuse, it is just the reality of the NHL.
More skilled players than Neal have lost their confidence and struggled. The lucky ones rediscover their confidence before weeks turn into months or an entire season. Neal was unable to find his last season. The harsh reality of professional sports is that is on the player. No one can find your confidence for you, in any walk of life. You need to do it on your own.
Sure, a coach can put a player in situations where maybe they will score and regain confidence, but even then it isn’t a guarantee. Every situation is different because every player will react differently when their confidence diminishes.
Neal can’t change the past, but he will play a major role in the future.
Will he play right wing or left wing in Edmonton? Does it matter to him?
“I’m comfortable on either side,” said Neal. “I think it depends on the way that your centreman shoots. I played left wing in Dallas and then when I was traded to Pittsburgh having a left-handed centreman like [Evgeni] Malkin and [Sidney] Crosby and them being able to pass the puck on the forehand to you all of the time, it was an easier time for me to get pucks off and shoot and stuff like that on the right wing. I think that was the biggest thing for the change. And defensively, pucks coming around the wall are pretty easy to get off on your forehand too when you’re on the right side. I’m comfortable on either side.
With Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins as the top-two centres (I have Leon Draisaitl starting on LW), it would seem likely we see Neal on the right side. He is their most proven winger, and head coach Dave Tippett coached him a decade ago in Dallas.
The Oilers need Neal to get off to a good start, so why not put him in the best position to succeed, on right wing?
ONUS ON SKILL…
I still believe scoring goals is the most difficult job in the NHL. Those who do it consistently, whether it be EV or on the PP, are very valuable in my eyes.
Neal is pretty good at it, but the NHL is always evolving. How has Neal evolved as a goal scorer?
“I think you have to evolve each year and every offseason,” said Neal. “I think it gets harder and harder to score goals as you can see. But I think with your shot, your stick, all of the things that go into being able to be deceptive with things and being able to get pucks off quick. The goalies are so good nowadays so you’ve got to change maybe your curve or your stick a little bit, anything that can give you a little bit of an edge. And I think that I’ve done that over the course of my career. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with great teams and great players. So, I’m looking forward to the opportunity of coming to Edmonton and playing with some really skilled players.”
Neal has worked with skills coach Shawn Allard from Perfect Skating for years. He works skills with him and trains with Gary Roberts at St. Andrew’s College in Auroro, Ontario.
He got on the ice with Allard in the middle of July, and will hone his skills with him right up until he comes to Edmonton for training camp. They have a specific plan on what to focus skills to focus on.
“We look at where I’ve scored the majority of my goals from,” explained Neal. “You look at the kind of patterns on how I play the game, where I like to go, where I like to get the puck. All of those things. So we kind of just tailor made it right to the way that I play.
Then we just kind of re-calibrated my stride a little bit, get back to getting maybe lower, getting more flexion in your ankles, all of those little things that help you create more speed. I think after a tough year you need to do all of those little things to get back to where you want to be. For me having the summer to be able to do that and to work on all of those things is going to help me tremendously throughout this upcoming year.
Neal is determined to prove last year was a major outlier for him. He has put in the work off and on the ice in the summer hoping it leads to another 20-goal season.
There was one other tidbit I uncovered during our conversation. Many of us are creatures of habit. We like things a certain way, and there are things we do that make us feel better, and when you feel better often you perform better.
It can be simple things. If you are single and you wear your favourite shirt out on the town, you feel more confident starting a conversation with someone who caught your eye. The shirt doesn’t make you any better, but you feel more confident in it.
Some guys feel that way about their hair. At the very start of our conversation, I had to read a liner about Shadified Salons. It ends with the tagline, “Where studs like Struds (Jason Strudwick) get their hair cut.”
Neal heard this and started laughing and we discovered maybe his struggles were due to something different than age, mental fatigue or a lack of confidence…
Gregor: Where would you rate the importance of hair in your daily life?
Neal: (Laughs) Well I guess you’re asking the right guy, its right up there. Pretty close to number one for sure for me.
Gregor: You actually have pretty good flow. You used to show it off in warmup, but you didn’t in Calgary. Why?
Neal: Well I think maybe that was the problem in Calgary. We all had to wear a helmet (team rule). So now that I don’t have to wear a helmet again, I think I can get my swagger back a little bit. I like that that’s (no helmet in warmup) is coming back (laughs).
Maybe all Neal needs to score 20 goals again is to “let his hair down.”