Trades in sports usually get described as shocking by both athletes and media alike. Initially, everyone seems to be sensitive to the difficulties of moving cities, meeting new teammates and acclimating to a different system of play.
However, after a few weeks and months pass, the stress on a player is largely forgotten by all parties except for the athlete.
Traded to Nashville a season and a half after inking a six-year contract extension with the Pittsburgh Penguins, James Neal found himself in the aforementioned category during the Predators 2014-15 campaign. Sure, he’d briefly overlapped with Mike Ribeiro, another newcomer to Music City, when the pair were both members of the Dallas Stars organization, but it had been years since they’d called each other teammates. Plus, being in the same division as Preds bench boss Peter Laviolette when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers for the last few years didn’t make the transition to calling Nashville home any easier.
“There’s always adjustment; you can say you’re comfortable, and you might sort of be, but the truth is you’re coming to a new team and playing with new guys and everything’s new to you, so it’s going to take some time,” Neal said.
A much-less-eventful summer this year, coupled with the continuity of the Preds lineup within the locker room, has Neal in a place something close to 180 degrees from where he was in 2014.
“This year, just coming back and being here a lot in the summer, just coming back and being at home and feeling at home is a big thing,” Neal said. “Feeling comfortable coming to the rink every day and knowing your teammates, it’s a good feeling. I love playing here, love being part of this team, and I think we have something really special in this room. We showed just a part of that last year.”
Making up the Predators “Nine Line” alongside Ribeiro and Filip Forsberg for the majority of last season has also helped Neal and his linemates create offense from a place of familiarity. Forsberg led the team in points during his rookie campaign, while Ribeiro topped 46 assists for the first time in fours years and Neal tallied his seventh, 20-goal season - something he’s done each year he’s been in the NHL.
“He means a lot for the boys and especially for me just to watch and play with him,” Forsberg said of Neal. “He’s a tremendous player. He’s been in the League for many years now for a reason. He’s been a tremendous goal scorer and he really showed that for us last year.”
“Just feeling comfortable with your linemates is always great,” Neal said. “I felt our chemistry was really good. Getting back together with Ribeiro and Forsberg coming in and being a lot more comfortable after Forsberg’s first year is going to be great for us. You don’t look at him as a young guy anymore; he’s an established player in the League already and hopefully we can get our chemistry up and be ready to go for the first game.”
Also entering his second season in Nashville, Laviolette said a balance of familiarity and growth as a team could bring good things for Neal and the club as a whole.
“Any time you’ve been somewhere for a little bit, somebody’s second year or you’ve been there for a while, for a few months, for a year, for a couple of years, you get more comfortable with a system or a coach or how things are done,” Laviolette said. “You get to know your teammates or linemates a little bit better. I think all of that plays into what ultimately could lead to being more successful and there’s definitely something that factors into that.”
Neal is just now entering his prime, according to Ribeiro, and the center says it’s wise to expect big things from the power forward in 2015-16. In a place he knows and loves, Neal isn’t shying away from the added pressure.
“I think you just want to be better than what you were last year, but for our team, we have the same goal - we want to finish first in the League,” Neal said. “That’s a goal we’ll strive for right from the first game of the season and on, and I think we showed ourselves that it’s doable from last year. We have lots of excitement around this team.”