His name isn’t one that immediately leaps out at you as that of an Olympian, but then again, James Neal’s numbers are also hard to argue with of late.
Over the last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins power forward has scored more goals (61) than anyone in the league not named Steven Stamkos or Alex Ovechkin.
He also is tied for 12th in that span with San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton with 117 points.
So when Neal heads to Canada’s Olympic camp in Calgary on Sunday, he is hoping that résumé and a little hard work help put him in the discussion to join an incredibly deep cast of forwards that will play in Sochi next February.
“You’re going to have to adjust to different roles and do different things,” Neal said on Monday, adding that it was an honour to even be on the list of 47 players invited to the camp.
“The players that are going to make that team are going to be the guys that can play in different situations… You’ve got to just play well to earn a spot. And to do that you go in with the right attitude and hope for the best.”
Neal was speaking as one of three Canadian Olympic team hopefuls – Stamkos and Montreal Canadiens defenceman PK Subban being the others – taking part in the BioSteel Pro Hockey Camp in Toronto this week, a four-day event precisely timed to give the 48 high level players in attendance an early jump on NHL training camps.
While Stamkos is one of the game’s true superstars and a lock to make his first Olympic team and Subban is coming off a Norris Trophy season that will bolster his credentials, Neal is much more of a wild card, despite those impressive statistics mentioned above.
After all, Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman has noted that a premium will be placed on speed in selecting the lineup – previous iterations of the squad have struggled in Games played on the international ice surface – and that may not particularly work in Neal’s favour.
In addition to the nine forwards invited to this year’s camp who were on the 2010 gold medal winning team in Vancouver, there are also a slew of talented youngsters like Taylor Hall, Claude Giroux and John Tavares who will be hard to deny their first Olympic appearance.
“It’s a different game on big ice,” Neal said of that adjustment. “I’ve played on it before in world championships, world juniors and things like that, and it’s a big change.”
That said, his ability to finish, especially on the power play, will make him an interesting option, as could his chemistry with Penguins teammates Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz.
Neal’s regular centre in Pittsburgh is Russia’s Evgeni Malkin, but he has also played regularly with Kunitz since joining the Penguins and performed well alongside Crosby whenever they have been on the ice together.
(According to Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com, Neal has played only 7 per cent of his 5-on-5 ice time with Crosby the past two seasons but produced close to 11 per cent of his points.)
“He’ll be a guy that’s going to lead that team,” Neal said of Crosby.