When you think of this seasons “super-stars,” most people for some odd reason still give ALL the credit to Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. Well let me break this down for you. Alex Ovechkin from the Washington Capitals is surrounded by elite talent such as; Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, and Mike Green. Steven Stamkos from the Tampa Bay Lightening is surrounded by, Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis, Eric Brewer and new sudden rising talents; Marc-Andre Bergeron and Teddy Purcell (whom both have shocked the world). Now, I am NOT by any means doubting Ovechkin and Stamkos’ talents. But what some people overlook are the players who truly deserve the credit where it’s needed. And THIS YEAR, that player in my opinion is James Neal.
James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins should be impressing the world with his incredible 9 goals and 5 assists in just 15 games. But, I have rarely heard his name mentioned on either ESPN, Versus or any blogging site that isn’t based out of Pittsburgh. Well that’s because they focus on the names that “SELL” in the hockey market. In Fact, the only website that gave an impressive interview on Neal and his “Hot Start” was the guys of Puck Daddy (Smart people). I bet many of you have never even heard of Neal until he became apart of the Pittsburgh Penguins franchise. Whether they’re the absolute best or without a single point, players like James Neal have always seemed to go unnoticed.
James Neal was drafted out of his OHL team, the Plymouth Whalers, 33rd overall by the Dallas Stars in the 2005 NHL entry draft. His rookie season began with the Stars in the 2008-09 season where he scored his first ever NHL goal in his first ever NHL game on October 10, against Pascal LeClaire of the Columbus Blue Jackets. That same year, he not only had his first NHL fight against Derick Brassard, which ended his opponents NHL season with a dislocated shoulder, but he broke a team franchise record. He broke the Dallas Stars rookie scoring record (held once by Jussi Jokinen) by tallying 24 goals and 37 points in 77 games. The following season he had yet another impressive year, but this time he recorded 55 points in 78 games. Then, on February 21, 2011, a shocking trade for Pittsburgh Penguins fans took place. A crowd favorite, defenseman Alex Goligoski, was sent to the Dallas Stars in a trade with a guy who at the time was on his 3rd, 20 goal season (James Neal), and teammate Matt Niskanen. Pittsburgh fans were excited about the new power-forward and were hoping he’d bring life to the Penguins once again. It’s not that the Penguins were struggling by any means, but the atmosphere was different without super-stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Unfortunately, James Neal was not the key Penguin fans were searching for. In 20 regular season games with Pittsburgh, he only tallied 1 goal and 5 assists.
Now another season has gone by and the Penguins are still without their fan favorite, Sidney Crosby and only getting half of Evgeni Malkin as he took part in only 8 of the 15 games this season. James Neal has finally brought success to the city of Pittsburgh, just like he once brought success to the city of Dallas. But this time, he is doing it without “big-named” forwards surrounding him. No Sidney Crosby, No Evgeni Malkin….No Problem. As a whole, the entire Pittsburgh team has been doing a phenomenal job without their leaders. With skilled Kris Letang and Deryk Engelland tearing it up on the blue-line, and forwards Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, and Jordan Staal each doing their part on the offensive side, James Neal and the Penguins are a shoe-in for the playoffs with or without their star forwards.
Here is an interview I had with Natalie Shaver of the Plymouth Whalers who knew James Neal very well. Read on and get to know James and his early days as an Ontario Hockey League Star.
Paige: Natalie, So what exactly was your position with the Plymouth Whalers and how did you know the boys and the team so well?
Natalie: My title was the Sales and Marketing Administrator, but with junior hockey and having a small staff you take on a lot of roles. You learn the ins-and-outs of everything. I was in charge of our billets (host families where the players live), ran our game-night operations and player appearances, sold tickets, and updated our website. Pretty much anything related to the team I had a hand in. That caused a lot of interaction with the players. We would have tours for kids 12-and-under after every home game, so I was able to see their personalities interacting with kids after wins and losses and since I was in charge of setting up and attending our player appearances, there were many hours spent with them outside of the rink setting. We usually averaged about 5 appearances a week.
Paige: At times in his NHL career, James Neal has been quite underrated. Was there anytime when he was with Plymouth you felt like he didn’t get all the credit he deserved? And can you describe that time?
Natalie: I think being a player on an American team in the Ontario Hockey League or Canadian Hockey League as a whole causes players to go a little unnoticed. There’s not as much coverage since their home games aren’t broadcasted across the province like the Canadian teams. The 2007 OHL Playoffs come to mind when I think about a time when he was underrated and almost unappreciated by other fans. Neal had been injured in the middle of February and missed the rest of the regular season and the first game of the playoffs. Missing that much time, one would think that he’d take some time to adjust and get back his timing and endurance, but Neal stepped in and didn’t miss a beat. He tallied 13 goals and 12 assists in 20 playoff games, recording a point in all but 3 of the games. He was clutch when it counted and was really the player we depended on for the big goal or big hit to turn the game around. The only problem was that Plymouth fans or fans from the team they were playing that series saw it. Media and fans in the Eastern Conference did NOT get to see how he was carrying the team and the lack of coverage on the Whalers in Canada as an American team also didn’t help. So when the Whalers reached the Finals against Sudbury (8 hours away in Northern Ontario), the media covering the series didn’t have a lot of knowledge on whom the Whalers stars were or what to expect. Game 6 was played in Sudbury and after Neal scored the series-clinching goal in overtime, it seemed like he would be a shoe-in for playoff MVP. However, the Wayne Gretzky 99 Award is voted on by the media at the game. With the remoteness of Sudbury, most of the media covering the event was from the Eastern Conference and they awarded the MVP trophy to Sudbury’s Marc Staal, who is still the only player from the losing team to ever win the award. Neal didn’t get the credit he deserved in the OHL playoffs, but when the Whalers went to the Memorial Cup in Vancouver, he continued to shine, leading the tournament with 5 goals in 5 games. I think that national coverage finally showed fans what he could do.
Paige: What was it like working with James Neal?
Natalie: Neal is a fun guy to be around. Especially in junior, he’d always be with Jared Boll (now with the Columbus Blue Jackets) and they were two peas in a pod. You never saw one without the other and they were always cracking jokes, having fun, and just being entertaining. Despite being a prankster, he was definitely a guy you could count on to promote the team in a positive way. I think after playing for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships (they won gold) he stepped up the level of professionalism and what it takes to make it to the next level. He was great with kids, signed autographs, took photos, and actually would help out at his billet kids’ practices. He was willing to give back and help others in hockey and I never had any complaints when Nealer was at an appearance.
Paige: Can you describe his style of play?
Natalie: Neal was your prototypical power forward. He wasn’t afraid to go in the corners, crash and bang, and get the puck out front for a goal. My favorite story about Neal and Boll’s play was from our captain the championship year, defenseman Steve Ward. He said he was so glad he was a Whaler and didn’t have to play against those two because they played all out, balls-to-the-wall hockey and would try to send the defense through the glass on every check. Ward said the reason Neal and Boll ended up with every puck that went in the corner was because defensemen didn’t want to get killed by them and just wouldn’t go after the puck. Neal could play the power game, but he was definitely a skilled forward who could put the puck in the net. He was versatile, playing on our top line as a goal scoring power forward, but then adjusting to play a third line checking role for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships.
Paige: What did the coaches and the GM think of him? Did they think he would have as bright of a future as he did with Dallas? And now the Penguins?
Natalie: The Whalers coach and GM Mike Vellucci knew that Nealer had all the tools to make it in the NHL. He described him as a horse that could play the body and be used in all situations. He’d say that he was a smart player that can skate, play defense, and score. Basically a player that could do it all. I think we all knew he’d be successful eventually in the NHL, but didn’t expect him to start off with a 20 goal season. When he got traded to Pittsburgh, my family (who all lives there) called and asked me about him since they knew he was a former Whaler. I told them that he wouldn’t disappoint them and just give him time. Getting traded is a huge adjustment, not just going to a new team and adjusting to the coaches, teammates, and systems, but he was living out of a hotel in a new city as a 23-year-old. It’s a lot to handle and things take time. He’s not the flashiest player, but he gets the job done. He’s not going to do all the stick-handling through defensemen that gets him on the highlight reels. He’s a north-south skater and uses his body to knock guys off the puck. I think coming into this season, he has adjusted to all the other things and now can focus on hockey and playing his game and the Penguins and their fans are reaping the benefits.
I’d love to hear feedback on who you think has also gone unnoticed this year! Thanks for reading! Any and all comments are greatly appreciated.
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