Call it the Whitby connection.
James Neal is part of a proud tradition of hockey players from Whitby, Ont., one of the most famous of which is his GM Joe Nieuwendyk. So when Neal was looking for a strong off-season program, who better to turn to than Nieuwendyk's good friend Gary Roberts, a fellow son of Whitby.
Neal is planning to become a part of Roberts' physical conditioning program this summer, and said he's excited at what awaits him. Roberts has built a professional training facility on his property and is starting to get some of the top young players in hockey to use his program. Last summer, Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos was trained by Roberts and came back this season and tied for the NHL lead with 51 goals.
``Stamkos went through this and really liked it, and I think it will be perfect for me,'' Neal said. ``I've trained with Gary before when I was younger, so I'm looking forward to this.''
Roberts' program and facilities are greatly improved, Nieuwendyk said.
``He's built a professional training facility right there, and he's making this a little business for himself,'' Nieuwendyk said. ``I think it's perfect for James.''
Neal last season got off to a tremendous start with 11 goals in 17 games and had 18 goals by Christmas (33 games). However, he tailed off in the final 45 games and said he needs to get better consistency throughout the season. He said he believes improving, strength, endurance and skating ability will allow him to finish the season stronger.
``You have to take advantage of your off-season and do anything you can to improve yourself,'' he said. ``I definitely don't want to just be happy with last season. I want to get better.''
Neal, who won't turn 23 until Sept. 3, had 27 goals on the season for second on the Stars behind linemate Loui Eriksson. He had 24 goals as a rookie.
``James is making great progress, but he has to be more consistent, and that's just something that happens with any young player,'' said Nieuwendyk. ``He started out so strong, and we know he has the ability to keep up that pace. But it's just a matter of going in and finding the way to stay both physically and mentally strong.''
Roberts is a great role model. He is a prototypical power forward who had to fight through a lot of injuries caused by taking abuse in front of the net. Yet he played 1,224 game, retiring in 2009 at age 42 with 438 goals.
``You have to find that consistency in everything you do, and I'm trying to do that,'' Neal said.
Neal dismissed any notion that he lost his edge after getting a two-game suspension for boarding Columbus winger Derek Dorsett.
``I don't think so at all,'' he said. ``You have to find a happy medium of aggression out there, and I feel like I understand where I need to be.''
Neal said he would have liked to have played in the World Championships this summer, but had to decline because of his contract status. He is a restricted free agent and will be negotiating a new contract with the Stars. He can accept an offer sheet from another team, but he understands they are rare and he is planning to play with Dallas. He said he understands the contract negotiation could take some time and is allowing his agent to take care of it.
``I know this is an important time for this team, and it's an important time for young players like me and Jamie (Benn) and Loui (Eriksson),'' Neal said. ``We definitely want to be a big part of building something good in Dallas and we feel like we can play big roles. That's a big reason for the workouts this summer. I think all of us are very hungry to get better and very motivated to get back here and start next season. It's a long summer when you miss the playoffs, and you want to do everything you can to make sure this doesn't happen again.''