It’s been eight months since James Neal skated in a game at CONSOL Energy Center as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. On Sunday afternoon, he’ll make his return to the Steel City, this time in a Nashville Predators sweater.
The trade that sent the 27-year-old winger from a team where he spent three-plus seasons, including a 2011-12 campaign that saw him tally 40 goals, to Nashville back in June initially came as a shock, but Neal isn’t looking back on the past.
Besides, he’s got a pretty good thing going in Nashville.
“I’m not too worried about it or thinking about it too much,” Neal said on returning to Pittsburgh. “I think playing [the Penguins in October] in Nashville kind of washed that away and I really haven’t looked back. We’ve been having great success here, and it’s really all I’m focused on.”
Neal has been a big part of that prosperity in the Music City. Just one goal behind forward Filip Forsberg for the team lead, many of Neal’s 16 tallies have come at important junctures, including one to tie Nashville’s game at 4-4 with less than three minutes to go on Thursday in St. Louis.
Head Coach Peter Laviolette, also in his first season with the Predators, saw Neal on plenty of occasions when Neal was playing for the Penguins and Laviolette was coaching the rival Flyers. The Preds bench boss enjoys being on the same side now.
“Everything,” Laviolette said when asked what impresses him about Neal’s game. “When he gets on a march on the offense, he’s one of those guys that can unleash 10 to 15 attempts at the net per game. With that, he’s got a goal-scorer’s ability. He’s taken down big minutes up front 5-on-5, and he’s been a contributor on the power play as well.”
One of Neal’s linemates, veteran forward Mike Fisher, has no problem with having a sniper on his wing.
“He’s been great,” Fisher said of Neal “He’s done an excellent job and done just what we’ve needed of him. He’s scored some big goals and it’s been good.”
Scoring goals is exactly what Neal was brought in to do, but there was another aspect that the Whitby, Ontario, native was hoping to add to his game with the move.
Back in September during training camp, Neal expressed a desire to take on more of a leadership role than he had in previous stops. On Opening Night of the 2014-15 season, Neal was given that opportunity, being named an assistant captain to serve as a member of the club’s core group of leaders, including fellow assistant Fisher and Captain Shea Weber.
“It’s been an honor,” Neal said of sporting a letter on his sweater. “To come here and be a leader and be counted on every night in the locker room has been fun. The team has been great and we’ve got a great group of guys in the locker room. It’s been a great transition and a fun one.”
“I do think that one of the strengths of our team is in the locker room and the leadership,” Laviolette said. “Sometimes there’s a process that goes into feeling out your new team and feeling out your new place, and we’re past all that with James. He’s been terrific in the locker room and as a leader overall.”
Fellow forward Mike Ribeiro, who played with Neal in Dallas and is doing so again in Nashville, has enjoyed seeing Neal at this stop in his career. Ribeiro feels that the goal-scorer has matured since their time together with the Stars, a quality that is evident on and off the ice.
“We usually joke around and we’re not too scared to tell each other what we do wrong or to shut up when we have to,” Ribeiro quipped. “It’s good, we have a good relationship.”
Ribeiro, who made a stop in Arizona earlier this season for the first time since leaving the organization, understands what Neal might be going through on Sunday against Pittsburgh, but says it’s key to block out whatever emotions may linger once the game commences.
“I think when the puck is dropped, you’re really focused on the game and trying to help your team,” Ribeiro said. “You definitely want to score against them and have a good game against your old team. You’re obviously thinking about it and you probably will see some of your old teammates, but I think when the puck is dropped, it’s a hockey game and most guys are focused on the job.”
There’s no doubt that Neal will be focused on two points for his team, not only against the Penguins, but for the rest of the foes that meet up with the Preds over the next two-plus months to close out the regular season.
“Our focus is trying to find a win every night,” Neal said. “You can’t give away points and the playoff push is going to come fast. We’ve got to start right away. Teams are fighting to get in the playoffs every night here, so we’re going to be coming up against a lot of desperate hockey clubs. We have to be just as desperate as they are.”
So will there be some nerves when Neal skates onto the ice in Pittsburgh on Sunday? Perhaps. But he’s not looking back. Things are working out just fine in Tennessee.
“Just being in Nashville in general has been awesome,” Neal said. “I love it here.”