Penguins James Neal is stopped by Panthers goalie Tomas Vokoun during a game last season at the Consol Energy Center last season. Neal hopes to regain his scoring touch this season.
By Dave Molinari Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It is, of course, far too early to declare this experiment a success.
The sampling is too small to reach any serious conclusions.
Still, that doesn't mean the Penguins can't be encouraged by what they've seen from James Neal since he was shifted to right wing at the start of training camp.
"I think the best he's looked in camp is when he's been on the right side," coach Dan Bylsma said Monday. "At times, he's done very well out there."
Neal played left wing, his customary position, after being acquired from Dallas in February, but the coaching staff decided in the offseason to move him.
Neal is expected to get some more work on the right side when the Penguins face Los Angeles at 8 tonight in Kansas City, although the lineup for that game has not been announced.
"We're going to get more examples of [Neal on the right side] here in the next three games," Bylsma said. "[It's] not a real concern at this time."
The long-term plan is to use Neal on a line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, but the uncertainty of when Crosby will return from a concussion has prevented them from playing together in exhibition games.
Consequently, whether that group will develop the chemistry the coaching staff expects, and which is needed to be a productive unit, is conjecture.
"Who knows who I'm going to play with, but we do drills together in practice and stuff," Neal said. "I'm sure there will be a little feeling-out process, but hopefully we'll be ready to get going as soon as [Crosby] is ready to go.
"But at the same time, whoever I get a chance to play with, I'm more than happy to."
Regardless of whether Neal ends up playing alongside Crosby and Kunitz, Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan or, for that matter, Marc-Andre Fleury and a fire hydrant, the Penguins will be counting on him to generate a minimum of 20 goals, and they'd prefer something a lot closer to 30.
There's nothing unreasonable about that, considering that Neal has scored 21 or more in each of his three NHL seasons.
Neal's touch deserted him after he joined the Penguins, however. He got one goal in 20 regular-season games, and one more in seven games against Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
He still played the power-forward game that convinced the Penguins to part with defenseman Alex Goligoski to acquire him, but did not fill the void for a goal-scoring winger that was one of the Penguins' major weaknesses.
It wasn't a matter of scoring chances, even though Crosby and Malkin had season-ending injuries before Neal arrived; rather, it was that a staggering number of his shots either hit goalies or missed the net, and that's no way to pad one's personal statistics.
Neal was credited with 52 regular-season shots after joining the Penguins. That's a shooting percentage of 1.92, which looks a lot more like a Vezina-worthy goals-against average.
Cruel statistical truths aside, Neal does not believe he has to make significant adjustments to his game. He might be getting a new position, but that's the only major change he's anticipating this fall.
"I was getting chances last year," he said. "Hopefully, the bounces will start going in. I just need to play the right way. If you're doing the right things, playing physical and shooting the puck, you're going to get those opportunities to score."
Although Neal said he won't put additional pressure on himself until the goals start going in as often as expected, he acknowledged doing just that a few months ago.
"I think I did that last year," he said. "When you put on that added pressure, you kind of grip your stick a little harder and do things you don't want to do. If you can stay confident and stay calm, [scoring goals] will happen."
Neal doesn't mind that he might be getting some of them from the other side of the ice in 2011-12, partly because he'd had occasional work on the right side before joining the Penguins.
"Anytime you come off your off-wing and are able to shoot the puck, it's an advantage," he said. "So I'm looking forward to playing there."
NOTES -- Crosby participated in a controlled scrimmage for the second day in a row. He reported no problems, but said he has not yet been cleared for contact. ... Right winger Arron Asham did not skate Monday, but Bylsma said Asham was given a "maintenance day" and that "he should be fine." ... Defenseman Brooks Orpik, coming off abdominal surgery, has not taken part in the past several practices, but Bylsma said he has not been ruled out of the season-opener Oct. 6 in Vancouver: "We're still preparing like he could be there for us at the start of the season."