COACHING CHANGES TRANSACTIONS POWER POLL DEPTH CHARTS CURRENT ODDS
By Dan Di Sciullo
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - They say you never get a second chance to make a first impression, but James Neal is willing to try.
Neal's first run with the Penguins was more than a little bit disappointing and it lowered expectations for his first full season in Pittsburgh. Judging by the power forward's play early this season, Neal is out to get the Steel City on his side.
With two goals in four games this season, Neal has already equaled the amount he had over 27 regular-season and playoff tests while donning a Penguins' uniform last year.
Neal is also making his presence felt in the physical and defensive aspects of the game and just generally seems more comfortable on the ice. The 24-year-old has been one of the biggest reasons the Pens have jumped out to a 3-0-1 start to the season and Neal has finally begun to validate the trade that sent him from Dallas to Pittsburgh last season.
When Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero acquired Neal from Dallas in late- February, he called it the "hockey trade that we've been looking for." But, Shero also said that Neal had "some room to grow," hinting that the young winger could struggle before coming into his own.
Still, it's a safe bet that Shero didn't think Neal would struggle as much as he did with Pittsburgh last year. After all, Neal had been a 20-goal scorer in each of his three years in Dallas and he had already reached that mark with the Stars in 2010-11 before being dealt to Pittsburgh.
Making matters even worse, defenseman Alex Goligoski, who was traded to Dallas in exchange for Neal and blueliner Matt Niskanen, went on to rack up 15 points in his 23 games with the Stars. Shero knew Goligoski was still a player on the rise when he dealt him, but the GM couldn't have predicted Dallas would get more offensive production from the defenseman after the deal than Pittsburgh would receive from Neal.
Despite last year's struggles, the Penguins were always going to be patient with Neal. After all, he did come to Pittsburgh at a time when the club's two biggest offensive talents -- Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- were on the shelf for the foreseeable future.
Neal's ability to produce big numbers would seem to rely on playing beside one of those two prolific centermen and that was simply not to be in 2010-11. Even though the time spent playing without Crosby and Malkin last year was not a productive stint for Neal, the experience is already coming in handy this season.
Crosby's concussion problems have still prevented him from participating in contract drills and when he'll return to game action is anybody's guess.
Malkin, meanwhile, played center alongside Neal in Pittsburgh's first two games of the year, but now he has missed the last two tests with a lower body injury. The Pens say Malkin's ailment isn't a long-term issue, but that it's simply a strength issue related to the knee surgery that ended his season in early-February.
It's a great sign that Neal's play this year has shown he is determined to help the Penguins win, whether or not Malkin and Crosby are on the ice with him.
Going through training camp and preseason with Pittsburgh has helped Neal become better acclimated to head coach Dan Bylsma's system and his play on both sides of the ice has benefited greatly. Bylsma expects even his scorers to share some of the defensive responsibility and Neal seems to finally be on the same page with his coach and teammates.
Of course, at some point the Penguins would like to see what kind of chemistry Neal has with Crosby. Even though Sid has been out with a concussion during Neal's entire stint in Pittsburgh, the trade was always about giving Crosby a consistent 30-goal scorer to skate alongside year in and year out. After all, having a constant goal-scoring threat to place next to Crosby could be a key to getting the Pens back to the Stanley Cup-winning form they displayed in 2009.
Neal, who is in the final year of his contract, has already shown great chemistry with Malkin, posting a goal and an assist in two games alongside the Russian, and that pairing has the potential to develop into a long-term partnership.
Still, Shero's been trying to find Crosby a steady counterpart for years now and he may finally have found the right fit. The only thing left is to wait until Crosby's ready to return and then the experiment can finally get underway. If Neal and Crosby do click right away, it won't be long before the Pens are talking contract extensions with the young winger.
Until then, the Penguins should be happy just to have Neal playing with confidence once again. The time for first impressions may be over, but Neal is showing that fresh starts are always possible.