Neal moves to blue line on revamped power play
James Neal led the NHL with 18 power play goals last season, a total that ordinarily would compel most teams to build the unit around him.
But most teams don't have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
With Crosby healthy and joining Malkin along the right-wing boards — Neal was especially effective playing there last season — Neal has been moved to the point.
“It's not like a classic point position,” Neal said. “But it's definitely an adjustment for me. Kind of a rover.”
Whatever Neal calls it, the move represents a big change, although it can be argued that he remains the focal point.
During the team's second training camp workout Monday at Consol Energy Center, the Penguins worked extensively on special teams. Although it would be incorrect to suggest every player on the unit has a specific role — “When we have it going well, there's not a whole lot of structure,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said — Neal's presence at the point was difficult to ignore.
Coach Dan Bylsma has gone back in time to formulate Neal's power-play role. Six years ago, defenseman Ryan Whitney developed a penchant for converting backdoor passes from Crosby, sneaking from the left point toward the left circle before burying Crosby's perfect passes.
“James is the new Whitney,” Bylsma said. “We looked at a lot of video. A lot from that (2006-07) season. It will look like he's playing (the point), but the idea is to open up the backdoor pass for Sid or Geno.”
This power-play style was particularly rewarding for Crosby six years ago, when he won his only MVP award and scoring title. Crosby produced a league-high 48 power-play assists that season and compiled a career-best 120 points.
He likes the idea of Neal's being his target and noted that other NHL snipers also play the point on a regular basis.
“He's got a great shot,” Crosby said. “You look at (Tampa Bay star Steven) Stamkos, he's usually in that area. (Washington star Alex) Ovechkin, too. Guys with big shots kind of get lost over there, get some space, and it doesn't take much for them to put it in the net.”
Neal, who signed a six-year, $30 million extension with the Penguins last February, seems eager to test the new role in Philadelphia on Saturday.
“I'm just trying to get familiar with being back there,” Neal said. “It's obviously different for me. With Sid and Geno interchanging, I just have to find seams and look for spots to shoot from.”
Bylsma downplayed the concern of having four forwards on the power play primarily because the Penguins believe Neal's defensive awareness is often overlooked. Forward Steve Sullivan played the point last season, leaving defenseman Kris Letang comfortable with covering for forwards.
“I was confident with what we did last year,” Letang said. “It's going to be similar to last year. What matters is that we use our brains and make the right decisions.”
Still, this isn't a plan without risks. Only three NHL teams allowed more than the nine shorthanded goals the Penguins allowed last season. The Flyers burned the Penguins for three shorthanded goals during their six-game Eastern Conference playoff series last season, and having an inexperienced point man doesn't seem to promote goal prevention for the Penguins.
“But I think it can work,” winger Chris Kunitz said. “Nealer's a talented guy. He can figure it out.”
Staff writer Rob Rossi contributed. Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter at @joshyohe_trib.
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