The Nashville Predators made a Real Deal before last season. It has turned out to be a Real Steal for the Preds.
The Nashville Predators have always been known as a defense-first hockey club, but the last two years under head coach Peter Laviolette we have slowly risen to a high shot percentage and a high scoring team. On June 27th during the 2014 NHL Draft General Manager David Poile made a big trade for a type of player we have never seen in a Predator jersey. A sniper.
Poile had just let go of long-time head coach Barry Trotz and replaced him with Peter Laviolette, whose philosophy is all about the offense, and he needed someone who could complement that philosophy. During the 2014 NHL Draft, Poile sent Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to The Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for James Neal.
Neal was a consistent 20 goal scorer, except his first season in Pittsburgh, and a 40 goal scorer to this point of his career. This was the kind of guy Poile needed to add to the growing forward unit.
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A lot of people wondered if Neal could have the same success in Nashville as he did in Pittsburgh since he wouldn’t have the center talent of a Sidney Crosby or of an Evgeni Malkin. His first two seasons with Nashville, Neal has scored 23 goals and 31 goals which I would say answers that question. Of course trading for Ryan Johansen during this last season definitely helped Neal reach that 30 goal marker.
Focusing on this last season and the playoffs, we can see the impact James Neal has on a team like Nashville. At the start of the season, much like everyone on the team, Neal had a hard time finding the back of the net. It wasn’t for the lack of trying, we just didn’t have the luck in our favor.
The team as a whole sputtered out of the gate and it didn’t seem like they found their flow until around the All-Star Weekend. In early January, the Nashville Predators added that number one center they’ve always needed in Johansen and provided Neal with a big bodied center that would help his production rise.
The instant connection the two had been clear and it allowed Nashville to have a true scoring threat. Neal has a knack get into the open spaces in the offensive zone, and when you have someone who can get him the puck like Joey then you’re gonna set yourself up with some high scoring chances.
The Game One goal in Round One is a perfect example. Johansen is battling for the puck along the wall in the offensive zone, he is able to take the puck and see Neal coming down towards the net. He gives it a good tap back to him and sets Neal up for a great shot to set the tone of the game. We talk about getting to the net and scoring goals. That’s what Neal is so good at, attacking the net and finding ways to take shots.
In Game Six, Johansen gathered a missed shot by Corey Perry and began racing down the ice with Neal creating a two on one. That’s two goal scorers coming at you, which one do you stop? Andersen chose the wrong one. He got out of his net too much toward Joey, who makes the quick pass to Neal who buries it home.
When you look at Neal’s games during the playoffs and the regular season, you will notice he takes a lot of shots. Which is great because you need to take a lot of shots if you want to get one or two into the net. Neal had six shots in Game One against San José, but couldn’t get one behind Martin Jones. Even though he didn’t get one through in that game, Neal is at his best when he takes multiple shots. This makes the goalie deal with his sniper abilities game in and game out.
Tuesday night Neal got our power play going which was much needed since our struggles with it this post season.
Mattias Ekholm circles around the offensive zone, something he does often, to find either an opening for himself or an open teammate. He skates towards the net and makes a no-look pass to Neal at the faceoff circle for a one-timer past Jones.
James Neal only has three goals in the playoffs so far, but not for the lack of trying shots. He’s gonna be one of those players that will help push us further into the playoffs. He is a leader in the locker room, a sniper on the ice, and I think it’s fair to say he’s the Real Deal.