James Neal knows a thing or two about long playoff runs.
Mark Giordano hopes that knowledge rubs off on the Calgary Flames.
Calgary’s captain intends to pick Neal’s brain about getting to, and playing in, the Stanley Cup final with both the Vegas Golden Knights in June and Nashville Predators in 2017.
“I’m going to ask a lot of questions to Nealer over the year in different situations,” Giordano said.
“He going to be a big leader on our team because he’s been there and he’s done it, especially most recently the last couple of years he’s been right to the final.”
When Neal went on the free-agent market in July, the Flames signed the 31-year-old from Whitby, Ont., to a five-year contract with an annual salary-cap hit of US$5.75-million.
Neal’s lethal shot and consistent production – he’s scored more than 20 goals every season in a decade in the NHL – were irresistible to a team ranked 27th out of 31 teams in scoring and 28th on the power play last season.
Neal’s 56 playoff games in the past three seasons also help fill an experience void in Calgary’s lineup.
Since reaching the second round in 2015, the Flames have finished out of the postseason twice and got swept in the first round in 2017.
A lot of things go into playing hockey in June, says Neal, but attitude and chemistry count for a lot.
“Obviously, you have to have a tight group, but it’s the belief you can win,” he said. “No matter if you’re down by two goals or up by three, you’re going to win the game.
“Losing never crosses your mind.”
Neal was a key contributor to the Golden Knights’ improbable run in their expansion season with 25 goals in 71 games, including six game-winners.
He had six goals and five assists in a postseason that ended with the Golden Knights bowing out in five games to the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.
Neal played all six games of the 2017 Cup final for Nashville against Pittsburgh with a broken hand suffered during the conference final against Anaheim.
Recovery from off-season surgery was supposed to delay his Knights debut the following season.
But Neal scored five goals in three wins to start the season and get the “Golden Misfits,” as he called them, off to the races.
“He’s obviously a gritty guy who scores a lot of goals,” Giordano said. “I love the way he plays. He’s going to be a big help on the leadership side of things.”
With 19 players entering free agency this summer, including leading scorer William Karlsson, the Golden Knights opted not to re-sign Neal. His season in Sin City was unique and emotional.
The Golden Knights’ regular season opened just days after a mass shooting at a concert beside Mandalay Bay hotel, killing 58 and injuring dozens more.
The team stepped to the forefront of the healing process with Vegas Strong messages throughout the season. The Golden Knights retired a No. 58 jersey to honour the victims of the tragedy.
“Everyone looks at Las Vegas as casinos and partying and a crazy place to go have fun and that was going to be our home,” Neal said.
“You get there and the mass shooting happens. It hits a lot closer ... living there. The city kind of rallied around us and our team rallied around the city.
“We won our first game and ... built a belief in our locker room that we’re going to be competitive.
“It was a special group, a special run. It’s tough coming up short, but it’s something I’ll never forget.”
The Flames depart next week for a pair of preseason games against the Boston Bruins in China, where Neal is expected to get his first taste of playing on the top line with centre Sean Monahan and left-winger Johnny Gaudreau.
“As we get some practices and get exhibition games in, we’ll see where everything falls, but I’m looking forward to get a chance to play with those top guys,” Neal said.
“They’re great players, they make good plays and for me to come in here and be a shooter and get open, I think it will be a good fit.
“Hopefully, I’m a guy that can come in and help this team get to that next level.”