Timing of lockout should not affect progress of Penguins' James Neal
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Very few NHL players are benefiting from the lockout that has shut down the league.
The only ones might be injured guys who are getting some extra time to recover without missing games. Or even training camp, for that matter.
The list of those hurt by the NHL's labor dispute -- everyone from elite young talents poised to break into the league to aging veterans hoping to earn a major league paycheck for one more winter -- is a lot longer, and more diverse.
James Neal of the Penguins would not, at first blush, seem to merit a place on it.
Not a prominent one, anyway.
After all, he established himself as one of the game's premier wingers by scoring 40 goals in 2011-12, and was rewarded with a six-year, $30 million contract.
Neal produced and was rewarded for it, although he won't receive a penny from the new deal until the NHL and its players' association settle on a collective bargaining agreement to replace the one that expired 16 days ago.
At this point, there's little to indicate one will be forged anytime soon. The league and NHLPA met for about five hours Sunday, but did not get into the economic issues that are at the core of the dispute and are not scheduled to meet today.
Although some might contend that the lockout has come, in some respects, at a particularly unfortunate time for Neal -- he is, after all, 25, hoping to build off the momentum of his first exceptional season at this level -- he doesn't see it that way.
"I think it's the same for everybody," Neal said. "It doesn't matter if you're coming off a good season or a bad season. Everyone wants to get better, and it's tough when we're not playing."
Neal got better in a big way last season, when he piled up 40 goals in 80 regular-season games. His rampage was all the more impressive because, after being acquired from Dallas late in 2010-11, he scored just once in 20 regular-season games and once in a seven-game playoff series against Tampa Bay.
Although his qualifications as a goal-scorer were clear when the Penguins traded for him -- Neal got 22 or more in each of his first three NHL seasons -- his scoring touch had deserted him in the early months with them.
"It was tough when I first got here," Neal said. "I wanted to do good things, and it just wasn't happening."
It happened quickly last season, however. Neal scored in a season-opening 4-3 shootout victory in Vancouver, and averaged one every other game for the balance of the schedule.
He finished with 13 more than his previous career-high, was honored as a first-team all-star and ratcheted up expectations for 2012-13 and the seasons that follow.
"I don't think it was a fluke," said left winger Chris Kunitz, who worked on a line with Neal and center Evgeni Malkin. "It's something he works hard for."
Neal credits his linemates with much of his success last season.
"Playing with [Malkin and Kunitz] has helped me a lot," he said. "[Malkin] was a huge factor. He's a special guy and fun to play with."
Especially when Neal's skills set dovetails so nicely with that of Malkin. Neal has a knack for finding his way to spots where Malkin can get him the puck, then launching it toward the net almost as soon as it touches his blade.
"He has that unbelievable quick shot that he can get off from anywhere, it seems, and get a quality shot on net," Kunitz said.
While there appears to be a synergy with that line, or at least an ability for its members to complement one another, Kunitz believes that simply getting settled in to his surroundings played a significant role in what Neal accomplished last season.
"When he first got here, he didn't feel as comfortable," he said. "It's a lot for a guy to get traded to a new city. If you don't click right away, things kind of go bad, maybe you start thinking negative.
"He got off on the right foot last year, being able to score, and just kept that going. Obviously, he was a big reason our team had success in the regular season."
The Penguins will be counting on Neal to be that again during the coming season.
No matter when it begins.
First Published October 1, 2012 12:00 am