Friday, November 13, 2015

James Neal: He scores goals doesn't he ...

By Larry Wigge

James Neal is just lurking.

He's hiding behind some bushes waiting to ambush the nearest goaltender.

"For me, I want to score ... I've got to score," says Neal, who in on pace to score 20 goals for the eighth straight season.

"When the opportunities are there, you want to bury them."

The 6-2, 208-pound right winger for the Nashville Predators said after notching seven goals in first 10 games this seasons. Neal has one of the best one-timers in the NHL -- in 2011-12 he netted 40 goals.

"When you're in the zone, you're feeling it, you almost feel like tapping you stick ... you want it," gushed Neal. "You want the puck a lot because you feel like everything's going to go in when you shoot it."

Their are six players that join Neal as 20-goal scorers since joining the NHL -- Jaromir Jagr, Alexander Ovechkin, Thomas Vanek, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Toews.

"I think he's one of the best goal scorers in the league," says Predators GM David Poile. "I think his record supports that.

"I like his speed, I like the fact he's dangerous all the time he is out there."

When Neal is moving his feet. He has been physically engaged, disrupting opposing plays in Nashville's offensive zone with a strong forecheck.

Linemate Philip Forsberg says, "Today, I just gave him the puck twice and he put it in the back of the net twice. That's the type of player he is."

Poile believes there is nothing wrong with Neal. Brett Hull played with Calgary, St. Louis, Dallas, Detroit and Phoenix. But, in his later days, Hull won a Stanley in Dallas and Detroit.

"I'm aware of how he plays," Poile sayis. "I like taking players for what they are and what they do. I'm not big on trying to change players. If I wanted to change a guy, I probably wouldn't trade for him."

For me, I'll never forget seeing Neal in the locker room as a rookie in 2009 in Montreal, head on a swivel making sure he did not miss anything. He didn't have a locker. Neal's position in the room was near a pole and he had a metal chair to sit on ... and his nameplate was written on paper and was fastened to pole.

Around him where Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf, Scott Niedermayer, Roberto Luongo, Shane Doan, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Mike Modano.

While he looked in awe, this Whitby, Ontario, native, was part of the YoungStars in the Montreal.

"I don't know what to say ... or who to say it too," said the 22-year-old Neal. "I'm just going to soak up all of the action."

Neal has the skills to go along with it. Good shot. Nose for the net. He battles hard and competes at a high pace. He finishes around the net with his stick ... and his grit. All of the intangibles made him a second-round pick, 33rd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

"When I'm playing with that confidence, playing with that attitude, you can visualize," Neal said. "When you get the puck, you know exactly where you want to put it. You do it before the game, too. I try to visualize all different kinds of shots, angles, you name it."

And they all go in? Don't they.

"That's the thing," he added with a grin. "And once I have that visualization when I'm on the ice, I just try to get the shot off quickly."

"James is dangerous from anywhere," says his former Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. "I think you could teach a lesson with getting open and releasing."

"His wrist shot is probably the best in I've seen," said teammate Pascal Dupuis.

Said Neal, "I just try to bring a physical aspect, I think I can put the puck in the net and be good around the net -- and be physical and play hard every shift."

Neal's father, Peter, coached him for the major part of his minor hockey. Peter is a real estate agent. His mom, Debra, runs the house. James has three younger brothers (Michael, Peter, and Nicholas) and one younger sister (Rebecca). Michael, plays in the Dallas organization was drafted in the fifth round, 149th overall, in 2007.

"He put a puck through his garage door," said Peter, who laughed ... and then sort of shook his head at the constant repair of the garage.

Saying he got tired of fixing the whole garage, so, "I used to just fix the hole."

Neal said he learned to be focused from his father. He learned to always be ready to play each shift whistle-to-whistle.

Obstacles? Most players have them. Neal said he was small.

"When I was younger, I was smaller and kind of developed the hands and tried to be a little more skilled, but once I started to grow and get bigger I kind of changed my game into a power forward," Neal said.

He didn't have to worry about being too small for too long. At 16, Neal started working out during the summers with Gary Roberts and Adam Foote.

"Growing up, it was all hockey," Neal recalled. "The fact I had an opportunity to train with guys like Gary Roberts and Adam Foote was as good as it gets. I started training with Roberts when I was 16 by going to his gym in Toronto -- and I got to know him very well.

"When I finished up in Toronto, I started training with Foote, who lived right around the corner from me in Whitby."

That self-proclaimed confidence is why they call James Neal, "The Real Deal."

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