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James Neal feels Calgary is 'really close to winning'

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Now reunited off the course, Mike Smith is banking on his grip-it-'n-rip-it pal to lend a significant hand in steering the Flames back on course.

"I'd say Ireland,'' estimates the combative goaltender, pressed for a favourite destination among his annual golf junkets with James Neal. "We've been on, oh, four golf trips together now, one a year.

"In Ireland, we played 10 rounds in seven days. A few of the courses? Well, Royal County Down. Really nice course. Very difficult.

"Valleybunion, 36 holes and it rained from the time we teed off until the time we came in at night. That was fun. Wet, but fun.

"We took helicopters from Lahinch to Old Head and it was amazing. Right on the coast. Beautiful setting. We played two-and-a-half rounds there and the one round we couldn't see our golf balls 10 feet in front of us because the fog was so thick.

"Welcome to Ireland, right?"

And now, a year after Smith made his initial introductions, it's welcome to Calgary, James Neal.

"For me, looking at Calgary, with the players they have, the goaltending they have, I feel they're really close to winning,'' said the 31-year-old Neal, after the finalization of a five-year deal that'll pay out an average of $5.75 million per.

"Start with the goaltending, with Smitty. Great guy. Super competitor. Having a guy like that in net, you have a chance to win every night. That's what you need to go deep in the playoffs."

His signing fills a long-standing need in the organization: a scoring right-winger. Whether Neal slots in alongside Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau or, say, Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk remains to be seen but the former 40-goal sniper will be a fixture on powerplays and at key offensive moments.

"He's pretty much a 25-goal scorer every year,'' says assistant GM Craig Conroy. "It's not a one-year-here, one-year-there kind of thing.

"To be able to grab a guy who can consistently score, that's a huge hole to fill. You lose (Micheal) Ferland's 20 goals on the right side, you add (Elias) Lindholm, (Austin) Czarnik, who we really think is gonna be a guy who pops for us, and have Spencer Foo in the mix …

"We've been trying to bolster our right side and James Neal brings a proven presence over there. Big guy, plays hard, and always seems to rise to the occasion."

Video: Brad Treliving talks about signing James Neal

In the build-up to selecting a free-agent destination, Smith did his best to sell Calgary.

"You want to do what you can to convince a player of that calibre to join your team, obviously, but in the end it's his decision.

"We did chat about this opportunity a little bit when he told me Calgary was in the conversation.

"It's a big commitment, five years to be part of one organization. We're pumped to have him. That process is unique in itself. When there are other teams interested and you're trying to look at the make-up of the team and the players you could potentially play with.

"He's been to two Stanley Cup finals in two years so he understands what it takes.

"I've already had a couple text messages from other teammates. Guys are real excited to add a player of Nealer's calibre.

"You can't teach goal-scoring. He has that knack for the net. I think it's 10 seasons he's had 20 goals or more? Not sure too many players can say the same. He's one of those guys, the puck just kind of follows him around and he's got that really good shot.

"All those things add up to a big piece, something we lacked for portions of last year.

While the current Flame consciously steered clear of exerting undue influence, Neal leaned on a Calgary star of yesteryear for some advice.

"I've trained with Gary Roberts since I was 15 years old," says Neal. "He's like my second dad. He's one of the first people I reached out to to talk about going to Calgary. I told him I was gonna wear No. 10.

"I don't know if that'll actually happen, but …

"Just joking around.

"Gary had nothing but great things to say about the organization and the city. That made an impression, for sure."

Neal, of course, departs Las Vegas in the wake of a truly magical, neon-soaked whirlwind for the Golden Knights, improbably burrowing as far as the Stanley Cup final in their inaugural campaign.

The year prior, remember, he'd also gone to the fourth round as a key component of the Nashville Predators.

"It's never easy leaving a team,'' acknowledged Neal of the Knights. "To go that far, well, we became a close team really quickly. You love the guys you play with, battle with.

"The coolest part was how the city rallied around us. What we did for the city after what happened was amazing to be a part of. The first thing every person said to you if you were recognized on the street was: 'Thank you.'

"No one thought hockey could work here. The way the city grabbed hold of our team and the way we grabbed hold of the city was special.

"Right from the first game out."

The aim is to recreate that sort of fervour here, fire up the town and party as if it was '04 again. Only with a different final result.

"Look,'' says Neal, "I want to win a Stanley Cup. I've been really close the last couple of years.

"To go on that sort of run, well, it's such a fun, fun ride.

"You get a taste of it, you want more.

"Maybe third time's the charm."

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