With the incredible year James Neal
is putting together, he could have easily opted to go to restricted free agency this summer to explore his options.
But the success Neal is having with the Penguins this season only intensified his desire to stay with the organization. And on Sunday, Neal ensured he wouldn’t be going anywhere anytime soon when he signed a six-year contract extension with Pittsburgh on Sunday.
The deal begins with the 2012-13 season and runs through the 2017-18 campaign, and has an average annual value of $5 million.
“I’m just so comfortable in Pittsburgh,” he said. “And with the commitment that the organization is going to give me, it couldn’t be a better feeling. I couldn’t have found a better spot.
“I don’t think I see myself in anything other than a Penguins uniform. Now it’s going to be for a long time. It’s a good feeling. We've got some great guys in this locker room and I couldn’t find myself in a better organization.”
It’s only February, but Neal said getting this deal done as quickly as possible was a no-brainer for him.
“I love everything about what goes on here and how we play the game,” he said. “I’ve got some great teammates here and it’s been a comfort feeling since day 1. I just couldn’t see myself anywhere else and hopefully the success continues.”
And it was a no-brainer from the Penguins’ side, as well.
"James has proven to be a really good young player for us - he's having a great year and at 24 he's already had a solid career,” general manager Ray Shero said. “As we've gotten to know him over the past year, it's obvious that he really fits with our group. It's really difficult to find players like this.”
Neal has been brilliant in his first full campaign with Pittsburgh, emerging as one of the league’s top goal-scoring threats playing most of the season on the Penguins’ top line alongside NHL scoring leader Evgeni Malkin
Neal – elected to his first All-Star Game in January – currently ranks fourth (tied) in the NHL and second on the team with a career-high 30 goals, the first time he’s reached that plateau. Prior to this year, Neal scored 20-plus goals each season since entering the league in 2008-09.
But scoring goals the way Neal can isn’t the only attractive part of his game.
He likes to shoot the puck, and does it a lot
as he leads the NHL with 242 shots. The 6-foot-2, 208-pound Neal uses his size and strength on both the forecheck and backcheck.
"He's got size, an uncanny release, a heavy shot, he goes to the net hard, he can skate,” Shero said. “There's a lot to like even beyond the 30 goals.”
It’s funny how fate worked out for Neal, who didn’t get off to quite the start he envisioned when the Penguins acquired him from Dallas.
“Right away last year, although he didn’t put up points, we saw the way James Neal
could play and what he could be,” head coach Dan Bylsma said.
But after having all summer to get situated and restore normalcy back to his life, Neal was motivated, rejuvenated and ready to report to training camp with his mind in the right place.
It’s resulted in the best season of his career, and hopefully, it just keeps getting better from here.
“I couldn’t have imagined that when I got the phone call when I was in my Dallas apartment,” Neal said. “When I got here and saw the way things go, I knew it was a great fit.
“Obviously it didn’t work out right away, but coming in this year and starting over and having a good feeling with things, having a comfort feeling, everything’s fallen into place. It’s been a great feeling.”