A guaranteed punch line lurks in every story that includes "diverted to Newark," and Dan Bylsma had no trouble coming up with one after his Tuesday practice failed to include new Penguins James Neal and Matt Niskanen, late of the Dallas Stars and later of the Newark International Airport.
"I hope they don't think they were traded to the Devils," Bylsma said.
Not bad. Not bad.
But how 'bout this?
I hope, upon reaching their final destination, they don't think they've been traded to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
All right, that's not even a joke, is it?
When you get traded to Pittsburgh, you expect to walk into the dressing room and meet Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the best players in the world, not most of the best of the top two scoring lines of the Baby Penguins, but the whole predicament is the essential irony of the Neal deal.
"James Neal didn't happen overnight," Bylsma reminded everyone shortly after the acquisitions in the Alex Goligoski trade Monday finally touched down, failing to add that neither could actually get here overnight.
"He's a guy that we've looked at and targeted and said, 'This is the type of player that we had been looking for, for our top six as a winger.' I think he's going to make us a better team going into [the game tonight against San Jose]. He's the kind of player who can make a difference. He could have made a difference [Monday] night [in a 1-0 home loss to Washington.]"
It has been years, meaning the years since Ryan Malone left, that Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero have coveted Neal's profile in an offensive player, a classical power forward with a heavy shot who creates goals and chaos and more goals in the low slot. The point was to augment the singular force that was Sidney Crosby, but now, when such a profile appears to finally have been procured, James Neal is not exactly a complement to Sidney Crosby.
He is Sidney Crosby, at least on a team without a single player with even 19 goals or 50 points. In the land of the lost superstars, the 21-goal scorer is king.
"I think right now, there is [some] leaning -- to use your word -- on the guys like Jordan Staal, and now like James Neal, guys that have more points than the other players," Bylsma allowed.
"Jordan Staal, while he's playing a few more minutes and he's playing more power-play time, we're not asking him to do more than he's ever done for us in the past. We're not asking him to stop playing like he played when Sid and Geno were here and now really emerge. He's playing exactly how he played for us before.
"James Neal, we're not going to ask him to do anything different than what his game is. That will add to our team. That adds a shot presence, something we can use on the power play, an offensive-zone presence. But we're not going to ask him to be Sidney Crosby. We don't want to pay him like that, either."
That's probably a better line than the Devils crack, Dan, but go ahead.
"We want him to be James Neal, a big power forward with a heavy shot, and hard-working. He's got to be real consistent in how he plays his power forward game, which is something he needs to do, I think, to get his game to the next level. He needs to bring a little more consistency and use that work ethic and that physicality and be a factor for our team, and that will help us."
A scorer of Neal's pedigree would help just about anyone, but, when he shows up on Staal's left wing tonight, he'll bring the bonus of impeccable timing, for this is a hockey team whose last 42 shots on goal have failed to cross the line. Fortunately, Bylsma's offense does not present a steep learning curve, unless Neal feels some kind of internally pressurized impetus to freelance.
"It's a pretty simple system to play within," said forward Pascal Dupuis. "But, if you try to cheat, to push things, well, there's leadership here among the coaches and in the room where that will be addressed."
The Penguins would urge you not to be fooled by this little scoreless streak that now measures 63 minutes 18 seconds and three useless shootout attempts, because they felt their offensive effort overall against Washington was one of the best of the month.
Thus the addition of the long-sought scoring winger has to make a difference. We've long since memorized that part of the catechism.
"He's a great hockey player," Staal said of Neal. "Big guy, plays hard, plays physical. It's tough when you have guys shuffling in and out of the lineup, but you just have to keep the effort up. Injuries are going to happen and, sometimes, when it rains it pours. You just make sure you don't change the player that you are."
Neal shouldn't be trying to be Crosby, obviously, and the Penguins shouldn't be expecting anything like it, even more obviously. But a couple of goals here and there are likely going to be required.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org .