James Neal off to hot start with Edmonton Oilers
EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — James Neal didn’t feel like himself last season and knew he had to do something about it.
The new Edmonton Oilers forward dialed up his offseason training so he’d be ready for a fresh start after a disappointing season with the Calgary Flames sparked a trade between the Alberta rivals in July.
Neal said he “put a ton of work in” with skating coach Shawn Allard and former NHL player Gary Roberts, who now focuses on physical training. That meant being on the ice with Allard at 6:30 a.m., four times a week starting in July.
“I wanted to get back to being myself,” Neal told Canadian Press before Edmonton’s 1-0 shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets over the weekend. “I wanted to skate like I know I could skate. I wanted to be able to shoot the puck like I know I could shoot the puck. Just all the things that I felt like I lost throughout the year in Calgary that I wanted to get back.”
The extra work has paid dividends for the 32-year-old Canadian — and the Oilers.
After putting up only seven goals and 12 assists in 63 games with the Flames — far off his run of 20-plus goals in 10 straight NHL seasons — Neal has already surpassed that. Through Sunday, he was tied with Boston’s David Pastrnak for most goals in the league with nine goals in nine games.
Neal set a franchise record for most goals (seven) through the first four games of the season, breaking a mark held by Glenn Anderson and Wayne Gretzky. Four of the goals came against the Islanders in a 5-2 win earlier this month.
Neal’s hot start has helped the Oilers get off to a 7-1-1 start, good for first in the Pacific Division. It’s a welcome change for a team that has missed the playoffs 12 of the past 13 seasons.
“It feels good. It pays off,” Neal said of his extra training. “You want to get your confidence back. You want to get your swagger back. You want to get that good feeling back that you know you could be one of the best players.”
The Flames signed Neal in July 2018, giving him a five-year, $28.7 million contract. He was coming off two trips to the Stanley Cup Final, but things didn’t work out in Calgary.
“They were paying me a lot of money to come in and score goals and be a big part of that team,” said Neal. “I came in and played in a third- and fourth-line role. For whatever reason, things just didn’t work out so it’s not really one thing or another. You can blame it on whomever you want or say whatever you want, but for me I could have been better. I think it just could have been different.”
New Oilers coach Dave Tippett was Neal’s coach a decade ago in Dallas. He recalled meeting with Neal before the season.
“He was looking forward to the change and excited to come to a team where he was going to get more opportunity than he got last year and excited to see what he could do,” he said. “And, obviously, he’s jumped in and he’s played very well for us.”
Neal is on a line with center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Alex Chiasson. He’s also skating on the top power-play unit with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Six of his goals have come with the man advantage.
“He’s really battled around the net to get good opportunities to put pucks in,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “It’s always good to see a guy like that, when you hear all the talk about the season last year and whatnot, come back and already have this good of a start. It’s definitely cool to see.”