It’s been more than three months since James Neal collected his belongings, walked out the mahogany doors of the Nashville Predators locker room and set out for another summer full of training, traveling and reflecting.
Fast forward a quarter of year, and that offseason is quickly dissipating. And that’s not a bad thing.
About to embark on his third season in Nashville, a city where he “couldn’t feel more at home” if he tried, Neal is full of optimism concerning the potential of his hockey club. After all, he and his ‘mates were only one win away from advancing to the Western Conference Final for the first time in team history last spring.
While there’s still so much to do before the potential of the postseason is realized, Neal isn’t bashful in regard to what could be on the horizon.
“It’s just an exciting time for our team and our franchise,” Neal said. “We thought we had a good run in the playoffs. We just kind of ran out of gas in Game Seven there against San Jose, so it’s nothing but going up from here and just getting better from where we were last year.”
The Predators will be setting out to attain those goals without their former captain, as the trade heard around the hockey world went down in Tennessee at the end of June. Neal knows it’ll be different without Shea Weber in the locker room, but the addition of P.K. Subban is one that instantly energizes everyone involved.
“Shea is a leader and just an unbelievable guy, so it’s always tough to see a guy like that go; but bringing P.K. in, he’s a guy with a huge personality,” Neal said. “He’s an electrifying player, and he’s going to bring a lot of energy to our team and to our fans.”
Neal is perhaps more familiar than most with Subban, as the two did battle on occasion when Neal was with Pittsburgh, Subban skating for Montreal. When recalling those times, Neal listed off plenty of attributes in Subban’s favor.
“He’s a guy that you get into it with, you don’t like playing against him,” Neal said of Subban. “He’s a guy that gets under your skin, and plays the game well when he’s under a guy’s skin, so it’s better having him on your team than playing against him. He has a great shot, great hockey sense and great ability to do good things with the puck. He’s a distributor and a goal scorer and he does it all. With the way our defensemen look right now, we have some great young defensemen who can skate and make plays and do everything… It’s an exciting time for Preds hockey.”
With the departure of Weber, a void has been left in the Predators captaincy position. Players like Neal, center Mike Fisher and defenseman Roman Josi, who are all assistant captains and part of the team’s leadership group, all figure to be in the running to be named captain when the time comes.
It’s an opportunity Neal would relish, but he also knows he doesn’t need the ‘C’ on his jersey to continue his leadership abilities on and off the ice.
“Regardless of what happens, I came in here to be a leader, to be an older guy and someone that guys can lean on, someone that leads by example and someone that can be vocal as well,” Neal said. “It’s a combination of things that you learn over the course of your playing years. I’ve been around a lot of different leaders; older guys and veterans and younger captains, so I feel I have a good grasp of how things are done. We’ll see what happens, but we have a few guys who are definitely capable of doing a great job.”
Since he arrived in Nashville in 2014, Neal has made every effort to increase his productivity on the ice, while ingraining himself into the surrounding community. His 31 goals last season - the second highest total of his career - show the commitment, and his upcoming James Neal Hockey Clinic to benefit Make-A-Wish of Middle Tennessee shows the heart.
Going into Year Three in Music City, the town is a place where he wouldn’t mind staying well into the month of June either.
“Going into this year, there are times and situations in games where we’re going to be a little bit more mature,” Neal said. “You can see yourself moving onto another round, so I like the way we’re trending right now.”