NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Predators forward James Neal admits having a goal scorer’s mentality. Then again, that’s what he’s being paid to do.
Neal has backed it up, too, scoring 88 goals the past three seasons — fifth-most in the NHL during the stretch — while playing for the Penguins. But a draft-day trade brought him to the Predators, whose avowed mission under first-year coach Peter Laviolette is to improve scoring for a team long famished in that area.
In scoring eight goals to rank seventh in the league this season, Neal has played a large part — along with top linemates Michael Ribeiro at center and rookie Filip Forsberg on the other wing — in the Predators (10-3-2) getting off to their second-fastest start ever.
"It’s been a good start," said Neal, whose two game-winning goals rate sixth in the NHL. "I like the way our team is going. It’s been fun every day, and I think the biggest part is that we continue to get better. We’re on the right track."
The 22 points earned through Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over the visiting Oilers has the Predators ranked third in the Western Conference and leading the Central Division by one point over the Blues, who they play Thursday night in St. Louis. Last Saturday, the Predators won 2-1 there to snap the Blues’ seven-game winning streak.
The pairing of Neal, Ribeiro and Forsberg has been one of the league’s hottest lines. Forsberg’s 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) not only leads the Predators, but all NHL rookies as well. Ribeiro, a free-agent signee, is second on the team with 13 points (four goals, nine assists), while Neal has added four assists to eight goals to rank third with a dozen points.
Forsberg leads the NHL in plus-minus ratio at plus-17 goals, while Neal and Ribeiro are tied for 19th at plus-8.
"It’s a combination of things," Neal said of the line’s production. "The more shots you get on net, the better chance you have to score. The quality shots we have had have been good. We’re getting pucks back, and we’re doing it all over again. So, I like the way we are playing, yeah."
Like a goal scorer should, Neal is getting plenty of cracks at the net. His 56 shots ranked 11th among NHL skaters, including 10 Tuesday against the Oilers that didn’t net a goal, Neal is averaging 3.7 shots per game, 15th-best in the league.
"You can’t score every game in this league," Neal said. "You can try, but it’s a process, and you’re learning more every day and in every game, but at that same time you want to have the goal-scoring mindset and go out there and get as many pucks to the net that you can."
Neal started his NHL career with the Stars in 2008 at age 21. He was their second-round draft pick three years earlier. Despite scoring at least 20 goals the first three years, the Stars traded him to the Penguins during the 2010-11 season. His career highs in goals (40) and points (81) came the following season.
Ribeiro was a teammate of Neal’s with the Stars, often sharing a forward line, and has noticed much growth in Neal in a variety of ways on and off the ice since they have been reunited with the Predators. One is leadership, considering Neal has already been named a team assistant captain.
"(Neal) played with top players in Pittsburgh," said Ribeiro, the 34-year-old veteran with 15 seasons of NHL experience, including last year with the Coyotes. "He learned from every one and learned how to approach the game and play better on both sides of the puck, too. That comes with experience. That’s a big difference.
"When he played with me, he was like real young, and he’d only think about scoring goals. But his play has been solid all over."
Now in his seventh season, Neal can’t help but see a lot of his younger self in Forsberg, the 20-year-old who was the 2012 first-round (No. 11 overall) draft pick of the Capitals. Both are expected to score goals and, consequently, Neal finds time to assist the rookie any way he can.
"I always try to help with little things," Neal said. "We have been working together good. He’s a hard-working kid. He’s going to the right areas (on the ice), and he likes to shoot the puck. So, he’s been fun to play with. It seems it was just like yesterday that I was in the same spot he was."
That spot now for Neal is to score goals for the Predators, although Laviolette said he doesn’t handle individual expectations that particular way.
"We didn’t really put any expectations on anybody," said Laviolette, a veteran NHL head coach previously with the Flyers, Hurricanes and Islanders. "We didn’t say you are expected to do this or the goal for you is to have this many blocked shots or this many goals or this save percentage. We stayed away from that.
"We kept all of our goals in the team-oriented goals and what we wanted to accomplish and what we’re trying to do on a given game. We have objectives, but one of the objectives isn’t James Neal scoring. We focus it more like that. We don’t talk about it, to be honest with you."
Neal feels the Predators, who missed the playoffs the past two seasons after going seven times in eight years, can maintain winning ways throughout the season. Along with an improving offense, much of that has to do with a defense led by star blue-liner and team captain Shea Weber, whose 27:16 minutes of ice time per game is fourth in the NHL, and world-class goaltender Pekka Rinne, whose 10 wins are second in the league.
"When you look at our team you see Pekka in net and him coming back and kind of being on a mission from having a tough year last year with injuries," Neal said. "When you look at our defense starting with Shea and you go right down the list, all those guys have been playing great. And we’ve added more of an offensive mentality with guys up front and (Laviolette) coming in as the new coach."