I'm starting to think the sky is the limit for James Neal.
When he first burst onto the Stars' scene, I kind of envisioned him as the eventual replacement for Brenden Morrow, but I'm starting to wonder if he might be even more.
The more you look at the kid, the more you start to wonder if he doesn't have a lot more Brendan Shanahan than Brenden Morrow.
Neal (6-2, 210) is built more like Shanahan, and also plays the game more like Shanahan. While Shanahan was certainly much more a physical presence earlier in his career than Neal, he eventually became a guy who concentrated more on scoring than fighting. It looks like Neal will probably tread the same path.
Yes, he can get physical and dish out a few hits. Yes, he will fight if he has to (and fight pretty well, too). But what Neal brings is an ability to get in and out of traffic, get to the front of the net and do something once he gets there. It's an interesting combination of size, strength and hands that allows a player to do that, and Neal seems to have all three.
Last season, Neal finished with 24 goals in 77 games (second among all NHL rookies), including a team-leading nine goals on the power play. Yes, he seems much more effective when he gets open ice, but that shouldn't be seen as a weakness. About a third of Shanahan's career goals have come on the power play, and many great NHL players have made a living when scoring off the man advantage. Neal could be one of those players _ and that's a role the Stars dearly need.
If Neal can put some oomph into the power play, it helps the Stars in a lot of different ways. One, he will probably be playing on the second unit, and any success he has there can force the opposition to make some tough decisions on how they want to defend the Stars when they have the man advantage. Two, a successful power play forces the opposition to play cleaner. Thus, you will see less hooking and holding and less physical play against you. That's just natural, because teams know that they can get burned if they are careless.
Detroit has lived off that philosophy for years, and the Stars could gain a great deal more space if they can score more on the power play.
Neal doesn't have a history of being a huge goal-scorer. He had 27 goals in 45 games in his last year of junior hockey and he had 18 goals in his one season (62 games) of AHL hockey, so you do wonder if we're making too much of his goal-scoring potential. But if you watched him in the playoffs in Plymouth (13 goals in 20 games) or in the Traverse City tournament last year (four goals among nine points in four games), you see the top-end potential he has.
Neal will turn 22 on Sept. 3, and still has a ways to go before he reaches his potential. He is supremely confident, and that's one thing that could slow his progress (if he gets too cocky). But I don't think the coaches will allow that to happen, and I don't think Neal will allow it to happen. He has big dreams for his NHL career _ dreams like All-Star Games and spots on Team Canada _ and I'm starting to think he can make those dreams come true.
Loui Eriksson obviously made a huge step forward last season. Jamie Benn and Fabian Brunnstrom each have the potential to be great NHL players. But if you ask me to name the player who will have the greatest career when it's all said and done, I think I would have to predict that James Neal will have the best numbers.
Am I completely crazy for thinking that?