Editor’s note: Vegas finally has a roster. It’s time to get excited. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be introducing you to these new Golden Knights players.
It was the 2011-12 season when James Neal cemented himself as one of the elite goal scorers in the NHL. Just one year after the Dallas Stars traded him to the Pittsburgh Penguins, Neal exploded for a 40-goal, 81-point campaign and, very deservedly, was named an All-Star for the first time in his career.
Now he’s a member of the Vegas Golden Knights and figures to light the lamp a lot during the team’s inaugural season.
Neal was one of the surprise names left unprotected by his team prior to the expansion draft. While some players were able to stay put thanks to a swift offering of draft picks, Neal didn’t get so lucky. After an incredible run to the Stanley Cup Final, the Nashville Predators were desperate to lock up their strong core of defensemen, which left Neal exposed. And boy, did Vegas jump at the opportunity to nab him.
While Neal hasn’t come close to his breakout year, much remains the same for the 29-year-old winger. He skates well, hits hard and, of course, scores tons of goals. And that will not change in his first season with the Golden Knights.
Neal is an above-average, top-line winger who consistently ranks as one of the best finishers in the league. With long-time KHL star Vadim Shipachyov likely to center the Golden Knights’ top line, Neal has the potential to see his goal total increase.
Shipachyov made a name for himself as an elite playmaker in Russia and has an incredible hockey sense. He has a freakish ability to deliver strong, pinpoint passes to his linemates and create high-danger scoring chances.
As Shipachyov adjusts to the North American game, a sniper like Neal should certainly make things easier for the 30-year-old center in his debut NHL season.
Neal is entering the final year of his contract at a cap hit of $5 million. While it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the Golden Knights to keep him around for the foreseeable future, it would also be wise to listen to trade offers. Top-tier goal scorers are very hard to come by and there will likely be teams willing to give up a king’s ransom to get one.
At the NHL Draft in Chicago, Golden Knights general manager George McPhee spoke on his approach to long-term deals. Judging by his methodology, it will certainly be interesting to see how they ultimately end up handling Neal down the road.
James Neal’s on a short-term contract, but he’s a hell of a player. That’s why we claimed him. I don’t want to get bogged down with too many long-term deals right out of the gate. We did one with Reilly Smith because we think he’s going to be a really good player now and a really good player four years from now.
Reilly Smith just turned 26 years old. Neal, on the other hand will turn 30 years old in September. Does McPhee believe he’ll also be a really good player four years from now? Neal’s performance this season will be the deciding factor. At the very least, though, the Golden Knights are in a great position with Neal. Whether he’s a long-term asset or an eventual trade chip, Neal gives Vegas a ton of value and appears to be one of the best players currently on the Golden Knights’ roster.