Feb 29, 2012; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Stars goalie Kari Lehtonen (32) makes a save on Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) during the first period at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE
Key Stat: 18. As in 18 power play goals, which led all NHL scorers in 2011-12. Nearly half of James Neal's 40 markers came on the man-advantage, in part helping the Penguins to finish with the league's 5th-best power play (19.7 percent) after finishing no better than 19th-overall in three seasons prior.
Interesting Note: Neal inked a six-year, $30 million extension on February 19 of this year. At the time, the deal was the longest handed to any forward by Penguins GM Ray Shero. That distinction has since been smashed by Sidney Crosby's 12-year, $104.4 million contract extension, but Neal remains the only Penguins player besides Crosby to be signed beyond the 2014-15 season.
The Good: Offense, offense, offense. Neal came to Pittsburgh with Matt Niskanen as part of the trade that sent young defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas ahead of the 2011 trade deadline. Neal was expected to bring much-needed offense to a group that would lose Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the balance of the season. Neal turned in just 6 points in 20 regular season games that year, but increased his output to 81 points in 80 contests once former-linemates Mark Letestu and Alex Kovalev were replaced with Malkin and Chris Kunitz. Neal's 40 goals were fourth-most in the NHL behind only Steven Stamkos, Malkin and Marian Gaborik and his aforementioned 18 PP markers led the league. Neal also finished 7th in total scoring with 81 points, giving the Penguins two of the top-ten scorers in the league. 2012 was also, by far, his most productive individual season. Neal set career-bests in goals (40), power play goals (18), assists (41), points (81), power play points (30) points per game (1.01), shots on goal (329), game-winning goals (4), penalty minutes (87) and games played (80).
The Bad: Defensively, the line of Kunitz-Malkin-Neal weren't nearly as formidable as in the offensive zone. Neal had seven games with a plus-minus rating of minus-2 or worse and finished with an even or minus rating in 54 of 80 games. Neal also led the team with 87 PIM last season and earned himself a one-game suspension in the Flyers series after a series of questionable plays. Neal is a physical player and his forechecking may have been one of his most underrated attributes coming into Pittsburgh, but his total hits took a dip last season to a career-low 108 after posting 159 with Dallas and Pittsburgh in 2010-11 and 174 with Dallas in '09-10.
Moment to Remember: Neal's 2-goal, 7-assist performance in 27 regular- and post-season games with Pittsburgh in 2010-11 weighed heavily on his debut with the team in 2011-12. In the season's first game against the Vancouver Canucks, Neal opened the scoring on the year by beating Roberto Luongo with an innocent-looking shot from a bad angle. The goal immediately flipped the script on his near-misses with the Penguins the previous season and set him loose on an eight-goals-in-ten-games stretch to begin the season. Neal cemented his arrival as the Penguins' long-awaited goal-scoring winger by potting 40 on the year, the most by any Penguins winger since Jaromir Jagr and Alex Kovalev in 2000-01 (52 and 44 goals, respectively).
Moment to Forget: Game 3, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Neal was suspended for one game after what the league deemed to be a charging non-call in a hit on Philadelphia's Claude Giroux. The Penguins would go on to win Game 4 by a 10-3 final despite missing Neal (and others) due to suspensions, but many felt Neal's punishment should have been more severe, and might have been, had the incident taken place in the regular season.
Discussion: Neal arrived in Pittsburgh as the highly-touted "winger for Sid," yet didn't share the ice with Pittsburgh's captain until November of last season. In that time, Neal and Malkin developed uncanny chemistry as linemates—together, Malkin helped Neal to career-best offensive numbers while Neal's presence was instrumental in allowing Malkin to cast off a two-year malaise of poor play and even worse linemates to capture his second Art Ross and first Hart Trophy. With both centers presumed to be healthy for the start of the next NHL season (whether that season is 2012-13 or not), who should Neal's regular center be? The team's captain and $104.4 million man, or the player who became the league's MVP with a linemate of Neal's caliber there to help him?