When Hockey Canada announces it’s roster for the upcoming 2014 Olympics in Sochi on January 7th, Penguins forward James Neal will most likely not be on it.
But he should be.
Neal, along with fellow teammate Chris Kunitz, are both considered bubble players to make Team Canada, which boasts a stacked roster, especially at forward, and many perceive Neal to largely be the beneficiary of playing with elite talent in Pittsburgh.
However I think if you break his game down and watch him over the course of 60 minutes, it’s clear that he is a pure sniper in his own right, and one that Team Canada would almost certainly benefit from having on their squad, for several reasons.
Just look at how he stacks up with other left-wingers:
In only 24 games, Neal is 7th in scoring with 34 points. By contrast, Patrick Sharp, who many are already putting as a lock for LW, is only 11 points ahead of Neal, despite playing in 20 more games.
He’s also one of the most accurate shooters in the game:
A shooting percentage of 26.7% puts him in the top ten for all left wings, again despite playing fewer games than everyone on the list. Still not convinced?
Neal is the owner of a .67 goals/game average, good enough for fourth in the entire league, behind only Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, and Alexander Steen, all legitimate snipers. It also puts him ahead of some of the best players in the world, like Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane, who ranks 11th. Oh yeah, one more thing. He is second in the entire league behind only Crosby in PPG, with a gaudy 1.41.
If you still need more convincing, there’s obviously no pleasing you, however I’ll go ahead and try to make my point anyways.
He can play with Sidney Crosby:
While usual linemate Evgeni Malkin was out ten games with a leg injury, the Penguins bumped Neal up to the first line with Crosby and Chris Kunitz, and the three clicked almost immediately, registering five goals and nine assists in four games. An elite sniper with skill and toughness to go along with it, Neal would be the perfect complement to Sid’s game on the big ice in Sochi.
He’s lethal on the power play:
Neal ranks fourth in the league in power play goals with eight, and 12th in total points with 16. Playing on the most efficient power-play unit in the NHL in Pittsburgh, Neal is used to taking the ice with other elite talents and distributing the puck to all, such as would be the situation if he were to make team Canada.
It’s possible Hockey Canada could be worried about the longevity of Neal in a highly compact contest like the Olympics. After all, he did miss 15 games recovering from various injuries, however his current totals of 16 goals and 34 points in 24 games puts him on pace for 55 and 117 over 82 games.
The other big knock against Neal’s game is his lack of experience competing for Team Canada internationally. He has competed on international ice only twice before, in 2007 where he won gold at the World Junior Championships which were held in Canada, and again at the World Championships in 2009 in Switzerland. This kind of experience is the only reason I can think of for Canada to pick a guy like Rick Nash over Neal.
In short, I’ll be shocked to see James Neal make the final roster for Team Canada, and while leaving him off won’t end up costing them the tournament, it does’t make Neal any less deserving of the honor.