UNIONDALE, N.Y. — James Neal knew he had more to give, that he could still be the 20-plus goal scorer he’d been in the NHL for 10 straight seasons.
He’s well on his way to becoming that player again with the Edmonton Oilers.
After scoring seven goals in 63 games in the first season of a five-year contract (average annual value of $5.75 million) he signed with the Calgary Flames on July 2, 2018, Neal was traded to Edmonton for forward Milan Lucic on July 19.
Three games into his Oilers career, the 32-year-old forward has six goals, including four in Edmonton’s third straight win to open the season, 5-2 against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Tuesday.
How good of a start is Neal off to in Edmonton? Consider this: with a team that once boasted the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Jari Kurri, it’s Neal who holds the Oilers record for the most goals after the first three games of a season.
“That’s definitely pretty cool,” Neal said. “It feels good to put on an Oilers uniform. I love the way our team is playing so far.”
The sample size is small, but thus far it’s been a remarkable turnaround for Neal, who did not have a point in four Stanley Cup Playoff games against the Colorado Avalanche and was scratched from Game 5, which the Flames lost 5-1 to end their season.
“Last year was tough,” Neal said. “I didn’t play much, I was kind of in a checking role that I’d never really been in before. It was just kind of weird overall. I just really never felt like I got a chance to play there. It’s kind of weird when you sign a five-year deal and you think you’re going to go in and be a top player, and it’s not really the way it worked out. Obviously both teams wanted to make a change. I was really happy that it worked out. Everything’s great so far.
“Right from our last game of the year, I put that stuff behind me and got back in the gym and started training again. I got back to what I wanted to be.”
Neal joined a team that has missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, and new coach Dave Tippett and new general manager Ken Holland are trying to change the culture. Tippett flew to Toronto during the offseason and met with Neal following the trade, hoping to convince him he could be the player he was in previous stops with the Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. But Neal was already motivated to prove there was plenty left in the tank.
“I give him credit; he’s come in here, he’s a real energized player,” Tippett said. “He’s helped our group, not just scoring some goals, but he’s really helped our group with giving some juice in the locker room. Happy to see him doing well.”
Neal isn’t just doing well, though; with his outburst against the Islanders on Tuesday, he leads the NHL in goals. Some may be surprised, but his teammates sure aren’t.
“It’s crazy how the hockey world forgets,” Oilers forward Zack Kassian said. “Obviously he had an off-year last year, but the guy can score goals; he scored 20-plus the last nine or 10 years or something like that. He’s very valuable for our team, he’s hungry, he’s good in the locker room. We need him to continue the way he’s playing if we want to be successful.”
With 104 games of playoff experience that includes trips to the Stanley Cup Final with the Predators (2017) and Golden Knights (2018), Neal’s presence could prove to be invaluable to a team looking to reverse its fortunes. He said he’s confident the talent is already there for a drastic turnaround, led by captain Connor McDavid, who had three assists Tuesday, and forward Leon Draisaitl, who scored 50 goals last season and has seven points (one goal, six assists) in three games.
“[It’d be] really cool,” Neal said. “I think that’s everyone, it’s right from the likes with all the new faces, the likes of Ken Holland and Dave Tippett. There’s a whole new change coming in here. We have some of the best, if not the best players in the world. Those guys want to win.
“If I can do anything to help those guys out and help those guys out, I have a lot of experience in the playoffs. I’ve been to the Stanley Cup Final twice, I’ve been in a lot of playoff games, I’ve been in ups, downs. I’ve lost twice [in the Final], and I want to win. I really want to win. My goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and I think with the guys that we have on this team, those are game-changers. Those are guys that you want to go into battle with in the Stanley Cup Final. For us, we’ve got give ourselves a chance to do that and we’re off to the right start.”