I personally think James Neal will be signed and will in training camp, and I personally think he will have a great season.
I don't base that on anything other than a gut feeling, but it just makes sense to me.
Neal is an interesting study. He was drafted 33rd overall (second round pick) in 2005, and was seen as a good player coming out of junior hockey and not a great one. He had 27 goals among 65 points in 45 games his final year, but that still wasn't among the top 10 in scoring in the OHL (which had nine 100+ point guys including Patrick Kane (145), John Tavares (134), Sam Gagner (118) and Bobby Ryan (102)).
He followed that up by scoring just 18 goals among 37 points in 62 games in his first AHL season with Iowa.
So, he was definitely seen as a bit of a project.
And, I think that's what makes him so interesting now.
Neal burst out with a pretty impressive rookie season of 24 goals among 37 points in 77 games and followed that up with 27 goals among 55 points in 78 games last season. He clearly is making improvement each season, and he has shown flashes of becoming a really great player.
To start last season, Neal had 11 goals and 11 assists in the first 18 games and seemed on pace for a breakout year. He was high energy, fast and physical. But then he made an unfortunate decision and boarded Derek Dorsett in Columbus. The penalty cost him a two-game suspension, but (more importantly) it also put a seed of doubt into his head.
Neal lost a bit of his edge and he lost the attack mode that helped lead to the early scoring. After the suspension, he finished the season with 16 goals among 33 points in 60 games _ a pace that was less than half of what he was on pace for in the first 18 games.
Neal also had to deal with the fact that his line (with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson) was struggling defensively on the road. All three were minus players, and coach Marc Crawford decided to break them up about three-fourths of the way through the season. Steve Ott got more time with Richards, and Neal ended up playing more with Jamie Benn, and the plus-minus went up for the final 16 games (Richards, plus-5 and Neal and Eriksson each plus-4).
Those are merely ballpark figures, because Neal did still spend some time with Richards, but it shows that there is some thought to juggling the lines and seeing if a player like Ott could balance the top line.
I think Neal can work things out and that line can be better defensively. Neal was selected for Team Canada at the World Juniors in 2007 as a checking line player, and he definitely has the ability to improve his game defensively. In fact, he has the ability to improve his overall game _ and it appears he's doing that right now. He's spending the summer in a tough training system with former NHLer and Ontario neighbor Gary Roberts, and he appears to be motivated to make the jump from good player to great next season.
Neal is a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights, and he and the Stars are currently playing the waiting game in contract negotiations. I believe the Stars are pushing for a two-year deal at $2.5 million a season, while Neal and agent Pat Morris are looking for something bigger. While current contracts for Tomas Fleishmann (one year, $2.6 million) and Mason Raymond (two years, $2.55 million) indicate that the Stars could be in the ballpark on Neal, there still are some important RFAs out there, including Bobby Ryan, Devin Setoguchi, Chris Stewart and Patric Hornqvist. Those deals could sway the Neal negotiations, but the bottom line is the Stars don't really have to up their offer if they want to play hardball with Neal.
If Neal is unsigned, Jamie Benn could get the chance to jump up on the line with Richards, and would probably score a few goals. Meanwhile, Neal would have to sit out the entire season if a deal was not done by Dec. 1. So, there would be pressure there. Now, the Stars would be going a season without Neal, and that would hurt them, as well, but I really think they want to establish a system of giving bridge contracts to players coming out of their entry level deals (Neal is) and are not going to be too flexible on that.
But, we'll see if the new contracts for Ryan or Setoguchi change that. There still is plenty of time to get this done before training camp starts Sept. 17.
Like I said, I believe it will get done, I believe Neal will be in camp on time and I believe he will have a great season. He knows he has things to work on, and he also knows that he really has the opportunity to be a great player on a great line, and that the opportunity for greatness doesn't come around all that often. He's been very serious about attacking this thing with his workouts, and my guess is he will be eager to attack it on the ice, as well.