The Dallas Stars’ 2009-10 season may only be two games in, but don’t count on left winger James Neal
joining the list by enduring a sophomore slump.
After breaking out with a Dallas rookie-record 24 goals last year, Neal opened Year 2 in impressive fashion, scoring two goals in the Stars’ season opener Saturday night at the American Airlines Center, a 3-2 shootout loss to Nashville.
He added his third goal Tuesday night in Edmonton, his first career shorthander that gave the Stars a 2-1 lead in a game they ultimately lost 5-4 in a shootout. Neal added a career-high seven shots on goal against the Oilers, giving him 12 on the year, which ranks him among the NHL’s top 15. He has also averaged 19:38 of well-deserved ice time per contest, a dramatic increase from his rookie total of 15:52.
Occupying the left side of the Stars’ second line alongside center Brad Richards and last year’s top goal-scorer, Loui Eriksson
, Neal has flourished in new head coach Marc Crawford’s aggressive puck-pursuit system.
But Neal also recognizes the potential pitfalls of second-year players who had success as rookies and is guarding against falling into the same trap.
“Coming in, you might think things are going to be easier, but you’ve got to stay focused, be consistent,” said the 22-year-old native of Whitby, Ontario. “You’re more mature, you know what goes on, you just have to do the same things you did the year before and you’re bigger and stronger. And I’m playing on a top line with Loui and Richie, and we’re going in the right direction.”
“He played pretty well last year and sometimes, you don’t know (how the second year will go),” added center Mike Ribeiro
. “A lot of times, in the second year, teams have an eye on you and it’s much harder to play. I think we expect a lot from him, and he expects a lot from himself, too, and that’s a good thing.”
Neal’s performance so far has certainly made an impression on his new coach.
“He’s a big strong guy,” Crawford noted. “People know that he’s a better player, he’s a known entity now, so people prepare for you a little bit better. I think on the plus side, he’s stronger and he’s not surprised by anything that’s happening on the ice. He’s one of the guys that seems to just have so much energy, on the bench and on the ice, and yet, he’s not losing his energy by over-extending himself, and that takes a long time for players to get. Sometimes it’s a process that takes a lot longer. He’s impressed me with how he’s been grasping what we’ve given him so far.”
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Neal utilizes his unusual combination of superior size and speed to bull his way through opposing defenders when crashing the net, which was how he scored the Stars’ first goal of the season Saturday night. After Nashville goaltender Dan Ellis stopped fellow second-year man Fabian Brunnstrom’s wrist shot, Neal fought his way through Predator defenseman Francis Bouillon to the rebound in front and roofed it.
“That’s what we need him to do,” said Richards, who also assisted on the goal. “He’s a guy that goes to the net hard and creates a lot of opportunities with his body. On his first goal to get the team going, he drove the net hard, with a lot of speed and got rewarded for it.”
“He’s a guy who keeps his feet moving,” Ribeiro said. “He’s a big boy and when he gets physical, he plays better - once he’s physical, he’s into the game. And if he keeps his feet moving, that’s when he plays his best. And he has a pretty hard shot. That’s going to be a great line there.”
Neal demonstrated his lightning-quick wrist shot when he beat Oilers goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin from the right face-off circle with a scorcher high to the far side Tuesday night. Unfortunately, Neal, who was a stellar 5-for-7 in shootouts last year, hit the post on shootout attempts in both games, each of which the Stars lost.
Deploying Neal on the wing with Eriksson and Richards, who had already established good chemistry last season, has so far worked out extremely well, as the trio has excelled at both ends of the ice.
“He’s really dangerous in front of the net and he’s working really hard,” said Eriksson, who was the only Star with more goals than Neal last year with 36. “I played with Richie last year and he’s a nice player to play with, too, so we’re creating a lot of chances out there.”
“We have been fortunate enough to play a lot of pre-season games, everybody’s been healthy and that helps to get some chemistry and some rhythm between the three of us,” Richards said. “We’re going to have to do a good job offensively and especially defensively - it could be a good line if we do all those things.”
Neal, who led the squad with nine power play goals last year, has certainly enjoyed lining up with his new linemates and hopes the combination persists.
“You give them some space, they’re so skilled that they’re going to get pucks to you,” said Neal, the Stars second-round selection (33rd overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. “We’re still getting used to each other and it’s going to be a learning curve, but we’re doing well and just keep moving forward.”
And as his second year progresses, the specter of the dreaded sophomore jinx will continue to lurk in the shadows, but Neal seems to have a good handle on things so far and the support of teammates who will help him through any rough patches.
“You fight it right to the end, it’s consistency,” Richards remarked. “You play an 82-game season, you fight it more earlier in your career, you learn as you go, for everybody. He had a lot of success, and it’s not just going to come to him now just because. I think he’s working on that and he realizes that. That’s the biggest thing for him - he’s got the size and talent and drive to do it.”