Justin K. Aller
Who would have thought that when the Pittsburgh Penguins traded away Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars in exchange for James Neal and Matt Niskanen two seasons ago that Neal would turn into one of the top goal scorers in the game?
After notching a career high 40 goals last season, Neal is proving that it was no fluke as he leads the team with 11 goals through 15 games this season, two more than what Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have combined for. Neal has goals in three straight contests, including a pair in a win against the Ottawa Senators this past Wednesday.
Although he certainly possesses the necessary skill to score at even strength, Neal is at his best scoring on the power-play, something he's done seven times this season. He's a big strong player that benefits greatly from the vision and playmaking ability of the team's 1 and 1A players mentioned above and there's no doubt the Penguins made a steal of a deal acquiring him from Dallas.
If there is one knock on Neal it's that he also has a team worst plus/minus rating of minus-5. That hurts particularly in head to head leagues but then again the Penguins have now won 7 of their last 9 games after starting the season just 3-3, so there's no doubt that stat will improve as the team keeps rolling.
Neal's longest goal drought last year was nine games and any good sniper has his rough stretches, but considering the Penguins finally have their two most talented players at 100% to start a season (albeit a shortened one), there's no reason Neal can't go out there and score every other night. It shouldn't surprise you at all if he's the first player in the league to hit the 30 goal plateau as the Penguins' third wheel.
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