Neal looks to turn it up this season for Pens
The Penguins are thrilled to welcome Evgeni Malkin and, eventually, a healthy Sidney Crosby back to their lineup. Having the real James Neal also should make for a nice addition.
Neal, acquired from Dallas in February, scored only two goals in 27 games with the Penguins but has made a believer out of coach Dan Bylsma.
"James Neal is a 20-goal scorer," Bylsma said, "and we think he can score 30."
Neal's pedigree suggests such numbers are likely after scoring 24 and 27 goals, respectively, during his first two NHL seasons in Dallas.
Neal was on pace for 30 goals before being traded to the Penguins, who were without Crosby and Malkin. He dealt with playing without the team's top playmaking centers, living in a hotel in a new city and attempting to adapt to a new system during a playoff push.
Despite the lack of success, his confidence remains.
"Last year was kind of a whirlwind," Neal said. "Everything was happening so fast."
The pressure to produce remains, but any inability to adapt to the team is gone.
"I feel much more comfortable this year," Neal said. "I'm adjusted to everything. I just want to focus on playing well and making Pittsburgh my home."
Bylsma is aware that many fans were dissatisfied with Neal's performance last season and came to the winger's defense. The coach clearly believes in Neal, who will likely see most of his time at right wing.
"I think he scored more goals than Tyler Kennedy, and Tyler Kennedy had a 'breakout' year," Bylsma said.
Bylsma expects Penguins fans to soon embrace Neal. The coach referenced Neal's history of starting seasons well and expects him to make sizable contributions.
"I think he's going to be ripping the puck on net here and getting some goals for us," Bylsma said, "and our fans are going to see that, so that will be a change for a few of them, I think, for how they think and feel."
Neal can relate to the disappointment felt by those outside and inside the organization.
"It's frustrating when you're not scoring," he said. "No fun."
Bylsma watched video this summer of every one of Neal's 74 career NHL goals. Perhaps it isn't coincidental that Bylsma has moved Neal from left wing to right wing, although that move was partially because of the team's considerable depth on the left side.
"He has the ability to score a lot of goals from that angle of the ice," Bylsma said. "And (he'll) have a pretty good center to get him the puck."
Neal admits that playing with Crosby and Malkin will be exciting. Crosby recently said he paid close attention to Neal's game from the press box last season and indicated that he has a strong feel for his game.
"So many great players on this team," Neal said. "It's going to be fun. I'm excited to have a fresh start this year. I'm ready."