DALLAS — The Penguins knew what they were looking for when they pulled James Neal out of this city nearly three years ago.
It’s safe to say they’ve gotten it, too. And then some.
“He’s every bit of what [the Penguins’ pro scouts] said he was going to be,” assistant coach Tony Granato said: “A scorer who, offensively, was going to be able to play in our top-six and complement one of our top two centers, and a guy who competes. They were right on.”
Neal will enter the Penguins game tonight against Dallas with 17 goals and 22 assists in 30 games, good for fourth in the team scoring race.
His numbers aren’t particularly gaudy because injuries and a suspension have forced him to sit out 21 of the Penguins’ first 51 games, but Neal has shown enough in the 30 for which he has dressed to reaffirm his place among the NHL’s most lethal goal-scorers.
He was a work-in-progress when he left the Stars and, at age 26, still is far from a finished product.
What that mostly means is that it still isn’t clear just how good he can become, a thought that won’t do much for the mental well-being of opposing coaches already compelled to find ways to limit the damage done by the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Neal and Malkin have meshed nicely, and Malkin’s ability to get the puck to his linemates complements Neal’s knack for finding holes in opposing defenses and getting off a hard, accurate shot before anyone notices he’s around.
“Playing with [Malkin] has been unbelievable,” Neal said. “We’ve clicked from day one.”
Well, not exactly. When the Penguins acquired Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen from Dallas Feb. 21, 2011, Malkin was recovering from a season-ending knee injury, so their partnership didn’t get started until the following season.
It jelled quickly, however, and Malkin helped Neal become a 40-goal man for the first time. Neal followed that by scoring 21 in 40 games last season, and is on an even better per-game pace in 2013-14.
The speed and accuracy of Neal’s shot obviously are major factors in his goal-scoring, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of his release, which is among the quickest in the game.
Compared to how quickly Neal can get the puck off his stick once it arrives, a hummingbird’s wings move in super slow-motion.
Granato said that Hall of Famer Joe Sakic is the only player he has coached who had a release rivaling Neal’s, and he was one of several people who likened Neal’s release to that of Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, arguably hockey’s finest goal-scorer.
“Stamkos is probably the best at it,” Niskanen said. “[Neal] doesn’t have maybe the one-time slap shot that he does, but, as far as getting the puck off quick and the ability to beat goaltenders cleanly, [Neal] is close.”
Often times, the puck barely touches Neal’s blade before being launched toward the net, and that causes real problems for defensemen and goaltenders moving at anything less than warp speed.
“When he’s moving around and he just kind of pops out of nowhere … he doesn’t need a whole lot of space, either,” Niskanen said. “When he’s facing the net and he’s got his forehand showing, he’s a threat at all times.”
Neal’s release is, to some extent, the result of genetics, but it also is an asset he has developed and refined to become the weapon it is.
He never scored more than 27 goals in four seasons with Plymouth in the Ontario Hockey League, and said his first pro camp with the Stars underscored the importance of upgrading his shot.
“A guy like Billy Guerin, who was there at my first camp … those guys could score from anywhere on the ice,” Neal said. “I knew I had to fix something, adjust something. I had to get a better shot if I wanted to play in the NHL.”
He and Plymouth teammate Dan Collins, who became a Florida draft choice, worked on all aspects their shots daily, and Neal’s efforts began to be rewarded.
“I just developed a way better shot,” he said. “All those little things. You’re getting it off quicker, getting it off harder.
“As the years go on, you have to keep [making] it better and better.”
He made it good enough that the Penguins were sure they were getting a pretty good player three years ago.
Even if they weren’t aware then just how good he’d be today.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.