UNIONDALE, N.Y. You know the story. Seven goals. The total number of goals James Neal scored last year with the Calgary Flames. Seven goals in 63 games. A shockingly low number for a perennial 20-goal scorer.
Fast forward to a new season and a new team, and it's fair to say that disastrouslone yearis now far behind him. In just his first three games with the Oilers, helit the lamp six times.
"I feel good. Obviously, last year wasn't the best of seasonsso change is good and I felt this was the right spot to be," Neal told Sporting News following the team's morning skate on Tuesday at the Na sau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. "So I'm feeling really comfortable here andoff to a great start so far . . . Its been a lot of fun. There's been a lot of change here, coaching staff, GM and a lot of new faces so, everything's been really good so far."
Good is an understatement. Thanks to four goals in Tuesday's 5-2 win over the New York Islanders, Neal accomplished something that not even Wayne Gretzky did in an Oilersjersey. With his natural hat trick two goals in the first period and Dorian Pickens Jersey his thirdsix minutes and 31 seconds into the second on the power play he set a franchise record for most goals in the first three games to start the season. And then added one more for good measure.
MORE: Neal goes on spree for Oilers, nets four vs. Isles
Fast starts aren't unheard of for Neal;back in 2017-18 with Vegas, he scored his sixth goal by his fourth game andin sevenof the last eight seasons, he netted that amount on average by game nine.Of course, last season's disaster didn't see him bury No. 6 until Game 59.
"I felt like last year was tough," he noted postgame. "I didn't play much, I was kind of in a checking role that I had never really been in before. It was just kind of weird overall. I just never really felt that I got a chance to play there.
"It's kind of weird when you sign a five-year deal and you think you're going in and be a top player P.J. Williams Jr. Jersey and it's not really the way it worked out. Obviously, both teams wanted to make a change. I was really happy it worked out, everything is great so far."
Over the course of his first 10 NHL seasons, with stops also in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Vegas, Neal developed a reputation as an effective goal scorer with an edge. In 703 games, he compiled 263 goals and 232 a sists with 530 penalty minutes hence the nickname, "The Real Deal."
Did he go over Jordan McCabe Jersey the edge? Yes, but that's what made him so dangerous a guy who could not only snipe but wasn't afraid to get into the gritty areas and grind.
"It's crazy how the hockey world just forgets," Zack Ka sian commented after the team's 5-2 win. "Obviously, he had an off-year last year but the guy can score goals. He's scored 20-plus the last nine or 10 years or something like that. He's very valuable for our team and he's hungry."
The turnaround is pretty apparent when you watch Neal, 32, on the ice. Comfortable was a word he used often, and it's apparent from his demeanor in the locker room and on the ice. He skates with a renewedconfidence and swagger that has shifted his focus away from the perimeter and back to the net presence that made him a household name. In his four-goal performance, he scored threefrom around the crease,including a nifty redirect off a beautiful pa s from Leon Draisaitl.
James Neal gets the natural hat trick set up by McDavid and DraisaitlBrady Trettenero (@BradyTrett)
Maybe that's the difference this year for Neal:he's playing with elite playmakers and scorers.
, the winger spent the majority of his time in Calgarywith Mark Jankowski with a higher CA per 60 (57.13) than CF per 60 (55.88). Now, nooffense to the former first-round draft pick, but he's no Evgeni Malkin, who Neal played with during his career year in 2011-12 when he collected 40 goals and 41 a sists.
Neal is a pure goal scorer who needs an elite playmaking center to get him the puck; enter Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. While it's a small sample size, the puck po se sion numbers are stronger (56.80 CF/60) entering Thursday night's game against the New Jersey Devils, and should only get better as the pair's comfort level rises.
Last season also saw him post the lowest shot total (141) outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, as well as the lowest shooting percentage of his career (five percent). That will definitely rise, especially with him seeing time on Blake Sims Jersey the first power-play unitwith the likes of Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. And, yep, he already had four goals on the man advantage prior to Thursday's game at the Prudential Center, where he added another. In Calgary, he was on the second power-play unit; which didn't make sense when CF/60 was well above Jordan Wilkins Jersey 100 with the likes of Matthew Tkachuk (104.56), Sean Monahan (107.02) and Elias Lindholm (113.47).
"Nealer found his groove there," noted Oilers' head coach Dave Tippett with a big smile following Neal's four-goal night. "I give him credit, he's come in here, he's a real energized player. He's helped our group not just scoring goals but he's really helped our groupwithgiving us some juice in the locker room. Happy to see him doing well."
The shift up north on Highway 2 has surely helped the veteran winger. As soon as the arena door closed behind him following the 2018-19season which saw him as a he got back in the gym and started training. He was ready to prove to himself that he could get back to being a goal scorer and so far, with the trade obviously playing a key role, it's fair to say "The Real Deal" is back.
"Obviously, he's scored lots of goals in his career," McDavid said prior to Tuesday's game on Long Island. "Last year, obviously a little bit of anoff-yearbut he came in in great shape, had a good training camp, had a good preseason and is off to a good start so hopefully he can keep that going."
NHL TRADE GRADES:
Prior to last season, Neal played in two seven-game series in 2016 and then had back-to-back Stanley Cup Final appearances. There was speculation that the wear-and-tear of the long, grinding seasons had finally taken a toll on him. However, now all Neal wants is to get right back to June.
"I have a lot of experience in the playoffs, I've been to the Stanley Cup Final twice, I've been in a lot of playoff games, I've been ups, downs and I've lost twice and I want to win. I really want to win. My goal is to win a Stanley Cup and I think with the guys we have on this team, those are game-changers. Those are guys who you want to go into battlewith inthe Stanley Cup Final so for us to get a chance to do Logan Routt Jersey that, we're off to the right start."