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Neal eager for new challenge with Golden Knights

Forward expects to be leader in Vegas after helping Predators advance to Cup Final last season

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- James Neal is 30 years old now. He has played in the NHL for nine seasons. Traded twice in the past, claimed in the NHL Expansion Draft on June 21, he knows how the business works.

When veterans reported to Vegas Golden Knights training camp Thursday, Neal seemed happy to be in Vegas even though he didn't know how long he would be. He's entering the final year of his contract. If he doesn't sign an extension, he could be gone before the NHL Trade Deadline. A scoring wing like him could land the Golden Knights more assets for the future.

"I think as you get older and you've been in the League for a while, you learn to control the things you can control and let the other stuff just work itself out," Neal said. "I'm definitely not worried about getting traded. I'm not worried about becoming an unrestricted free agent. I'm more excited to be a part of this new expansion team.

"It's in Las Vegas. It's going to be a really cool atmosphere. We have a great arena to play in and brand-new facilities. I have a chance to be a leader on this team and be counted on for a lot of different things. I think just looking at that helps you move day to day and be excited to be a part of this franchise and this team."

Make no mistake: It was hard for Neal to leave the Nashville Predators. He spent the past three seasons there and helped them go from making the Stanley Cup Playoffs, to winning the Western Conference First Round, to advancing farther than ever before. They packed Broadway with fans and came within two wins of a championship.

Then they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Final. Then he had surgery to repair a broken hand. Then he was exposed in the expansion draft.

Video: Sights and Sounds of Golden Knights training camp

"It's never easy," Neal said. "I loved my time in Nashville. I loved the guys there. I really enjoyed it. So I'm definitely going to miss those guys. ... The way things went, I was just proud to be a part of it. We did everything we could and just came up a little bit short."

But Neal understood the situation. He was getting older and entering the final season of his contract. The Predators had to sign players like forward Viktor Arvidsson and center Ryan Johansen.

"It wasn't the biggest surprise," Neal said.

Predators general manager David Poile tried to make a trade with Golden Knights GM George McPhee to protect Neal, and he kept Neal informed.

"That was definitely nice," Neal said. "Usually you're in the dark with a lot of things, a lot of business moves that happen. Especially over the years being traded, you get a call, and you're gone. So in this process, I knew everything that was going on. So that makes it easier for sure."

Ultimately Poile was unwilling to pay McPhee's price, but that's because the price was high for a player who has scored at least 20 goals each season and as many as 40.

"We'll see where we are as the season progresses, but we claimed him for a reason," McPhee said. "He's a good player. He can score goals, plays with an edge. He'll be a nice fit here."

Tweet from @GoldenKnights: James Neal on Russian words he's learned from Evgeni Malkin: "Just the swear words."

Neal has had a short summer to heal and move. He still needs 2-4 more weeks to recover from surgery. But once he's ready, he should play with center Vadim Shipachyov, a 30-year-old free agent who put up big numbers in the Kontinental Hockey League.

"He's a guy who loves to pass the puck," Neal said. "I'm looking forward to that. For me to be able to be a shooter and to have a guy like that who's a left-handed shot that's going to be looking for you all the time is exciting."

This is an opportunity. The better Neal plays, the better for everyone. The Golden Knights will sign him or trade him to a contender. He'll end up with a new contract in Vegas or elsewhere. The expansion draft rules were designed to make the Golden Knights competitive, right? He is a big part of that and not alone.

"I think it's fun," Neal said. "I think just controlling the things you can control and having fun with it and playing in the best league in the world, new team, it's all good stuff. So enjoy it, and hopefully we win some games and push to be in a playoff spot.

"I think this is a little bit of a different expansion team. We've got good players here. I think in the past, it hasn't been this caliber. You don't get a goalie like [Marc-Andre Fleury] in an expansion draft. That's the most important position in hockey, really. You have a great goaltender, and you build from that position out. We've got some great defensemen, and we've got some skilled forwards. So we'll see what happens."

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