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Neal blossoming into a key player for Stars

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

While the rash of injuries suffered by the Dallas Stars this season to key players has severely hindered their push for a sixth straight playoff berth, one silver lining has been the rapid development of rookie James Neal.

Forced into a more prominent role as the year has progressed due to long-term ailments sustained by important forwards like captain Brenden Morrow, Brad Richards and Jere Lehtinen, among others, Neal has seized his opportunity and flourished with it.

In the process, he has become another crucial component of the Stars’ lineup, often skating on a line with veteran center Mike Modano. The 21-year-old left winger now ranks second on the club with 24 goals, which is tied with Anaheim’s Bobby Ryan for the most among NHL rookies. Neal also leads the Stars with nine power play goals, which is also tied with Ryan for most among league freshmen. His 35 points are fifth on the squad. He has also notched two game-wining goals and has averaged 15:55 of ice time per contest. 

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Neal is also a physical presence, dishing out 183 hits so far this season, ranking third on the team and third among all league rookies.

“Obviously, he’s improved a lot,” noted assistant coach Stu Barnes, who has worked extensively with Neal this season. “He’s put together a heck of a season, scoring like he has and having a big impact on games. He’s a combination of a guy with a lot of size, speed, physical and the ability to score goals, so that’s a good combination. He’s a very level-headed guy, too, he really wants to be a good hockey player and wants to come out and give an honest effort during games and practice to improve and that’s a good combination. Guys really like him and he’s been a great addition.”

“I think Nealer, that’s flashes of what you’re going to see for in a long time in this league,” winger Steve Ott said of his young teammate. “He’s come in and he’s had a hell of a rookie season. He’s been a young guy with a lot on his shoulders in this dressing room, with the guys we have lost and he’s took the opportunity and he’s run with it. It’s going to be a lot to come and a lot of good years in the league for a bright future.”

Neal’s electrifying third period goal Tuesday night against Vancouver highlighted some of his best assets - namely his speed, tenacity and ability to find the back of the net. After taking a lead pass from defenseman Matt Niskanen in the neutral zone, he exploded past Canuck defender Willie Mitchell with a burst of speed and then, with Mitchell hounding him from behind, beat All-Star goalie Roberto Luongo with a backhander between the pads before crashing into the end boards.

“It was a good pass from Nisky coming through the neutral zone with speed,” said the humble Neal of the play. “I thought we were good - me, Mo and Lehts - we were creating chances there, it was a good line. I had three scoring chances myself there that I wish I could have buried.”

“He’s one of the few players that we have on our team that I think can create something out of nothing,” Stars head coach Dave Tippett said of Neal. “You look at a lot of his chances, they’re just kind of broken plays and then all of a sudden, he’ll grab it and he’ll create a chance out of it. His goal (Tuesday) night, that was just a quick transition goal - he makes a great play to get around the guy and then finds a way to get it in.”

Tippett was particularly impressed with Neal’s nose for the net and his extremely accurate shooting ability. 

“I think his ability to score goals, his ability to find opportunities to put the puck in the net,” Tippett said, identifying Neal’s biggest area of improvement over the course of the season. “It’s hard to score in this league and the ability for him to come and find the number of goals he has, it’s been a big bonus for us.

“He’s a good shooter. I could come down the wing 100 times and bury my head and poof, right in the pads, and he’s a guy that comes down and gets his head up and he shoots to score. Great scorers in this league always have had that knack. There’s people that score hard goals and there’s people that have the knack, the skill, to shoot it in the right place. Nealer has probably the most pure elements of a goal scorer that we have, in that he can grab that thing, he finds a spot and he hits it. You don’t score that many goals without having some kind of knack for doing it.”

Being the team-first guy that he is, Neal indicated that he was happy with his performance overall but disappointed in the club’s somewhat desperate predicament and that his accomplishments wouldn’t mean much if the Stars failed to qualify for the playoffs.

“It’s obviously nice to be up there and be tied with Bobby Ryan, but in the end, you want to be in the playoffs,” said Neal, a native of Whitby, Ontario. “You know, 24 goals is nice, but you didn’t help your team into the post-season and you’re not in the playoffs, so you kind of feel a little down for that. It’s nice, but it’s not enough.”

Of course, he is still a rookie and like most first-year players, has had his ups and downs. Even after starting out the year fairly strong, he struggled with consistency and was eventually sent down to AHL Manitoba on Nov. 2, spending a little over two weeks there. In five games, he notched four goals and an assist before his recall Nov. 18. 

He still makes the occasional turnover in the defensive zone, such as the one that led to the game-winning goal by Anaheim’s Teemu Selanne in the third period of a 4-3 loss on Feb. 28, and his -9 plus/minus rating ranks second-worst on the club. But Neal has been working hard on improving those aspects of his game all year and has made progress.

“He’s been a very good player,” Tippett said. “He’s got a little bit of a wild horse in him still, that you’ll see glimpses of just brilliance, and there’s other times when you can see that there’s inexperience in his game. But he’s certainly a guy has great desire. He’s been good in a lot of situations. He certainly has to improve in some of the defensive work, but he’s got great potential.” 

While it may seem like he’s had a meteoric rise to Stardom this season, Neal has been very highly-regarded by club management since he was selected in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2005 Entry Draft. After helping lead Plymouth to the 2007 OHL championship in junior hockey and earning a gold medal with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships that same year, Neal skated last season at AHL Iowa, registering 18 goals and 37 points in 62 games.

He was expected to compete for a job in training camp this year but certainly accelerated his growth to not only make the opening night roster but have a considerable impact throughout the year. Part of that has been due to the extra ice time gained due to the injuries.

“I think he’s developed a lot - this whole year, he’s gotten better every game,” said winger Chris Conner, who spent most of last year at Iowa and skated alongside Neal some of that time. “I think he uses his size, his shot, he’s really coming together to be a complete player. I think everything has just gotten better - all his skills, he’s got more confidence now and that goes a long way. You could see that he had it in him, it was just a matter of time, but he’s really come along.”

“We knew he had the potential to do it,” Tippett said. “I think he’s gotten more opportunity because of our injury situation, his opportunity has increased, which has helped his progress to move forward. Opportunity, when it’s there, sometimes a player takes it and sometimes he doesn’t, and he’s a guy that’s taken the opportunity and ran with it.”

Neal admitted to being slightly surprised at just how well his rookie season has gone, recognizing the role that the club’s health difficulties played in the process.

“I never would have thought I’d have this many goals and have the chance to play a lot with injuries, and being able to play on the top line and power play,” he acknowledged. “The chances are there and I’ve had the opportunity. What you’re given, you go with it, run with it as long as you can and do the best you can with it. I think things have gone well.”

And they look to get even better as Neal continues to mature and develop.

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