After scoring one goal in twenty regular season games last year for the Penguins, James Neal was hardly viewed as a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. While his style of play -quick, agile, hard hitting, aggressive- looked like a perfect match for Dan Bylsma's system, the 24 year old's lack of production ultimately made him look like a glorified Craig Adams.
This year, at least through one month, things have changed. Neal has 8 goals through the first 11 games of the season and has had copious chances to score even more. With Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby still on the mend, Neal and Staal have picked up the slack, contributing 9 points a piece to lead the Penguins. While Neal has played sparingly on the same line as Evgeni Malkin, the two have developed great chemistry, though Crosby's return could ultimately place Neal on Sid's line.
While this early season outburst by James Neal is new to Penguins fans, it is nothing new to Neal, at least not by his track record. Heading into this season, Neal had scored 15 goals in 32 October career games with the Dallas Stars. In March and April combined, Neal has scored only 10 goals in 59 games. Whether his numbers are indicative of "breaking down" after a long season or simply losing the scoring touch as games become tighter has yet to be determined. After all, this will be just his fourth full season in the NHL and the kid is only 24 years old.
Still, the numbers are worth monitoring; especially this season.
Neal's early production has created a predicament for Penguins GM Ray Shero. After this season, Neal will become a restricted free agent and, if this pace continues, he could realistically finish the year with 40+ goals. Keep in mind, Bobby Ryan of the Anaheim Ducks makes over $5.5 million a year and he has been a consistent 30+ goal scorer for the past few seasons. With Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis needing contracts after next season, Shero cannot afford to paint himself in a corner by giving Neal $5-6 million a year earlier.
Although, getting a deal done now could save money, it could ultimately end up backfiring in the long run. Neal will make $3.5 million this season and could probably be extended to $4-4.5 million if negotiations were to go well early in the season. However, that money could be wasted if it turns out Neal is only a first half player. As it stands, Neal averages .67 points per game before the All-Star Break and just .39 points per game after. The Penguins have built their team with a simple formula over the past half decade; put the big stars on the ice, and surround them with players who fill their role in the system. A first half player who fades down the final stretch would look like a multi-million dollar eye sore.
If I am Ray Shero, I wait for the end of the season to negotiate a deal with James Neal. There needs to be a change in Neal's game from what his young career already shows as a trend. He needs to find a way to fill the net in the Spring. With the salary cap increasing by $4.6 million this season, the probability of a higher cap in 2012-2013 seems likely. It would be more comforting to speculate how Neal would fit under the cap after Crosby and Staal sign rather than the other way around.
For now excellent job so far James, now keep it going.