James Neal

Predators top line reunited with return of James Neal

By Jim Diamond

Seeing his first game action since March 12th due to an upper-body injury that caused him to miss nine games, James Neal stepped back into the lineup for the Nashville Predators Saturday night against the visiting Dallas Stars.

Predators head coach Peter Laviolette reunited Neal with Mike Ribeiro and rookie Filip Forsberg on the team’s top line. That triumvirate has spent a lot of time together this season, and there’s a good chance they will be a unit when the playoffs commence.

Trailing by a goal late in the third, Ribeiro, of course, sent a pass from the high slot over to Neal near the right faceoff dot, where he hammered a one-timer by Stars goaltender Jhonas Enroth to tie the game 3-3 with 1:55 to go.

Neal skated to the right boards near some celebrating fans before his teammates joined him.

“It’s always good for your confidence,” he said. “It felt good to get that one. It was a great play by Ribs to slide it over and I managed to get good wood on it and get it to the net.”

The assist was the 500th of Ribeiro’s NHL career. He wasn’t much in the mood to talk about his personal milestone after the game, but he did like to see how his line progressively got better as the game went along.

“You have to keep playing,” Ribeiro said. “For a goal scorer, even if you are just trying to get back into it, if you score a goal, I think it’s good for his confidence. But obviously the first two periods, I think we could have maybe created more, but for his first game in a while, we’ll (take) that big goal at the end that he got for us.”

Neal had 19:56 of ice time in the game, recording two shots on goal and had another two attempts miss the target.

“The whole team has missed Nealer,” Forsberg said. “He’s a huge part of our team. You saw the shot that he scored on there. That’s the stuff he does on a daily basis.”

Being together with Ribeiro and Forsberg made Neal’s return to game action a good one.

“To be able to slide in and play with Ribs and Flip made things easier,” Neal said.

Laviolette liked what he saw of Neal in the game.

“I thought James looked good,” he said. “He scored a big goal for us late. He was able to contribute offensively. I thought the line was productive.”

With just three games remaining in the regular season, the Neal-Ribeiro-Forsberg line will be relied upon heavily come playoff time, so getting back the chemistry they had together earlier in the season is a priority for them.

“I think we’ve just got to keep working really hard and doing the things that we did, especially in the third period,” Forsberg said. “I think that’s the biggest key for us here in the last three.”

Quick Analysis: Predators land Neal in trade with Pittsburgh

By Jim Diamond

Leading up to this weekend’s NHL Draft, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile made no secret of his desire to land a top-six forward. He gave the impression that he was looking to acquire that player in exchange for the 11th pick.

Poile definitely acquired the top six forward he was looking for when he made a trade for Penguins winger James Neal Friday night. To get a forward of Neal’s caliber, the price was high. But the 11th pick did not go to Pittsburgh. Instead, it was forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

Neal has the scoring punch that the Predators desperately need. He had 27 goals in 59 regular season games played last season and posted his career-high 40 goals in 2011-12.

The 26-year-old Neal has four years left on his contract at $5 million per season. He plays with a big deal of snarl to his game, both approaching and going over the edge at times.

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During Neal’s time in Pittsburgh, he played a lot of games against new Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, whose most recent job was as the bench boss of the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh’s cross-state rival.

The big problem here is that he will not be playing on Evgeni Malkin’s wing in Nashville. Instead of playing with one of the most talented centers in the world, Neal will have the likes of Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, or Calle Jarnkrok getting him the puck.

Laviolette plans to play a much more up-tempo offensive game than was the norm in Nashville under previous head coach Barry Trotz. Of Hornqvist’s many talents, he is not blessed with great skating speed.

However, he is fearless and just about all of his time in the offensive zone is spent with his heels planted just outside of the crease with his backside in front of the opposing goaltender. In addition to numerous slashes at his legs and gloves to the face, he puts himself in harms way setting up screens and looking for deflections on slap shots from Shea Weber.

Like Neal, Hornqvist has four years remaining on his contract with a $4.25 million cap hit per season.

Hornqvist was popular with the Nashville fans and served as a mentor to young Swedish players like Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg when they came to the team.

Spaling was a serviceable player who spent most of his time on the third and fourth lines. As a second round pick, 58th overall, in 2007, Spaling put up solid numbers in junior, but never scored much in his time with the Predators. He posted a career-high 13 goals this past season.

Seen as a Trotz type player and as a pending restricted free agent, Spaling was expendable on a team with a fair amount of third and fourth line types.

With coaching and player changes, it is no secret that Poile has been looking to reverse the fortunes of the Predators. All in all, this looks like a good deal for the Predators, but Neal is going to need some help in succeeding. He is not just going to appear on the scene and get back to being a 40-goal scorer without his teammates getting him the puck and creating some room for him.