Numbers might suggest Penguins' Neal belongs on Team Canada

| Monday, Jan. 6, 2014, 10:42 p.m.

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The coach of Team USA, surrounded by Canadian reporters in Vancouver, seemingly made a final pitch for a player.

A Canadian, no less, though not the one so many in Canada argue about daily.

Bylsma made it clear that he believes Chris Kunitz should be on the Canadian Olympic team, but saved his most passionate words for James Neal.

Neal has scored more goals than any Canadian winger during the past three NHL seasons, but rarely seems on the radar when the Olympic team is discussed in Canada.

Even though Neal's presence on Team Canada could theoretically derail Bylsma's attempt to claim gold as Team USA's coach, it was quite evident that Bylsma believes the right wing belongs in Sochi.

“When I look at it,” Bylsma said, “I say there's no way he can't be on there.”

Bylsma has been impressed by the maturation of Neal's game.

The ability to score goals, though, has always been Neal's greatest attribute and, even though Bylsma has coached him for three years, he still shakes his head when speaking of Neal's shot.

“James Neal's ability to put the puck in the net is pretty special,” Bylsma said.

The Americans and Canadians in the Penguins locker room will be divided when the Olympics begin, but all agree Neal belongs in Sochi.

“I know I think he should be on the team,” goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. “He's been so great for us all year. And trust me, the way he can shoot a puck … you don't want to be a goalie and have to face him.”

Fleury isn't alone in that assessment. Matt Niskanen has known Neal longer than any of his teammates. The two played in Dallas before being traded to the Penguins three years ago.

The defenseman has advice for Team Canada officials.

“I watch the way Nealer's playing right now,” Niskanen said, “and I'm not sure how many players are better, to be honest. He's at a different level now. He was a really good player in Dallas, but his game has matured so much. The way he knows how to score, and how good he is on the boards now, and the way he can skate. He's a great hockey player.”

Niskanen, like so many Penguins, is puzzled by the lack of public buzz around Neal's candidacy.

“I look at all those projections on TSN just like everyone else, and you don't really see his name,” Niskanen said. “I mean, he's got to be at least in the discussion, right? Something's wrong if he isn't. He's doing it all right now.”

Neal has taken a modest approach to the Olympic selection, which is receiving overwhelming buzz in Canada.

“It's out of my control,” Neal said.

Neal has six goals and six assists in his past five games. He ranks second in the NHL behind teammate Sidney Crosby in points per game.

“Obviously, it would be an honor,” said Neal, who often doesn't receive credit for his numbers because he plays with center Evgeni Malkin.

Neal, Kunitz, and the rest of hockey will see months of debate conclude Tuesday morning, when the team is announced in Toronto.

“He should be on that team,” Niskanen said.

Josh Yohe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @JoshYohe_Trib.

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