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Penguins re-sign winger Neal to six-year extension

BUFFALO, N.Y. — After a sluggish start to his Penguins' tenure, James Neal has proven he can be the scoring winger the team had coveted.

And the Penguins weren't about to let him go.

The Penguins announced Sunday they signed their All-Star right wing to a six-year, $30 million extension, a deal that not only rewards Neal but also should not prohibit the team from signing centers Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal to extensions. Crosby's and Staal's contracts expire in summer 2013, and general manager Ray Shero can begin negotiating new deals with them this summer.

"We felt like (it was) a good term, a good fit for both (parties)," Shero said of the Neal deal.

Since losing a bidding war for former right wing Marian Hossa in 2008, the Penguins have sought a legitimate sniper at the wing position. They found that in Neal, who has 30 goals this season and is on pace to crack 40. He has never scored fewer than 22 goals in his four NHL seasons. Most wingers with those numbers command an even higher figure than what Neal settled for.

However, the 24-year-old insisted that leaving the Penguins was never an option, even though he would have been a restricted free agent after the season.

"I love Pittsburgh," Neal said. "I love everything about what goes on here. I couldn't see myself anywhere else."

Neal has established himself as one of the premier young players in the game. Entering yesterday's games, his 30 goals were tops among notable 20-something wingers, and his 56 points were second to the 57 posted by Ilya Kovalchuk of New Jersey.

The extension comes almost a year to the day the Penguins acquired him from Dallas.

The Penguins' salary structure looks sound for the next two seasons.

Even if the salary cap stays at $64.3 million — it has risen every year since its implementation — the Penguins would be almost $5 million under the cap ceiling next season. Their only unrestricted free agents this summer — goalie Brent Johnson, and forwards Steve Sullivan, Arron Asham and Richard Park — come cheap. The Penguins' only restricted free agents will be defenseman Matt Niskanen and little-used forward Cal O'Reilly.

Shero acknowledges there will be pressure to sign Crosby and Staal but said he does not believe Neal's salary cap figure will hinder the Penguins' ability to make those deals.

"There's always going to be something that adds that (pressure)," Shero said. "We'll deal with each situation as it comes along."

Neal struggled in the final 20 regular-season games last season, scoring one goal and managing just six points with the Penguins. Still, coach Dan Bylsma said the team realized what it had in Neal.

"Right away last year," Bylsma said. "Although he didn't put up points, we saw the way James Neal could play."

Before this season, Bylsma said he anticipated a 30-goal performance from Neal, whose career-high had been 27. But Bylsma believed Neal's potential screamed for even more production.

A conversation the two had indicates the winger believes 30 is merely a starting point.

"Coming in this year, 30 was the tentative number," Bylsma said. "The number he gave me was different. He's not there yet."

Whatever that number is — neither would say — Neal will have ample opportunities to reach it in a Penguins uniform. It doesn't hurt, either, that Evgeni Malkin projects as his center for the foreseeable future.

"When you have chemistry with a guy," Neal said, "you want to play with him for a long time. I'm excited to play on a line with Geno for a long time coming."

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