There’s been a lot of discussion about the UFA and RFA players on the Golden Knights roster who weren’t re-signed before the trade deadline. In a perfect world, we’d keep this team exactly like it is, but the world isn’t perfect and contract negotiations aren’t either. We can’t keep everyone, but we need to keep James Neal.
I’ll talk about my personal feelings later; right now, it’s time for some facts.
On the ice:
- Neal has scored over 20 points in all ten seasons he’s played in the NHL. It’s an elite club he belongs to and his accomplishment shouldn’t be taken lightly. Was this his highest scoring year? No, but despite the hand injury he was recovering from early in the season and another later in the season, it wasn’t his lowest either.
- He scored the first goal of the regular season for Vegas. Then later in that game against Dallas, he scored again to tie the game Vegas would eventually win. At a time when the world was watching and no one thought this team would win anything, he helped lead them to a win. He also scored in the following two games, helping the Golden Knights become the first expansion team to start a season 3-0.
- Despite his injuries and illnesses during the season, Neal took every chance he found and skated with it. He made plays happen, ending up with 71 points when all was said and done. And that makes this one of his best seasons in the NHL, and second-highest in the last five years. He may be 30, but it’s not showing on the ice.
- Neal is a force to be reckoned with on the ice. He’s known for finding an open space in the net, getting the puck to his teammates when it seems impossible, and fending off the other team when he has to. Yes, he’s missed shots and made mistakes, but so has everyone else. His experience keeps him from dwelling on those mistakes and propels him to fight harder for his next chance. As Gerard Gallant said in a presser during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, “They call him Real Deal Big Deal James Neal for a reason.”
- He’s a fighter. There were games in the post-season where Neal was almost superhuman. Getting the puck, making the hits, taking the hits, and creating opportunities for everyone on the ice with him. There was a fire in him and a hunger to win that the teams in the first three rounds couldn’t match. Yes, we ultimately lost the Cup, but we still won so much more. James Neal is a big part of that “more” I see everyone talking about now.
So much talk about the Golden Knights centers on their mentality and character off the ice. James Neal is a leader both in the locker room and on the ice. In an interview with nhl.com, after the Knights won Game 3 of Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Jonathan Marchessault said how Neal talked to him after a penalty and calmed him, telling him to relax. He said his teammate is “critical to the success of the team”.
Other teammates, including Marc-Andre Fleury and Alex Tuch, have also talked about Neal’s leadership and mentoring of the younger players. He is often a calming force in the midst of high emotions, managing to keep his own in check more often than not. He was also the one who got everyone’s numbers at the beginning of the season and dubbed them “Golden Misfits” for their group messages. He’s not the only leader, but he is an important one.
His interactions with fans has been just as important. I’ve heard stories about how wonderful he’s been to everyone who’s met him, either at practice or out in the city. Kids, adults, everyone I’ve met has raved about him. At practice recently, a group of kids who play hockey sat behind me, saying they thought Neal would get the most cheers when he came out. Character matters, and he has it.
Now, here’s where I’m going to get personal:
When it was announced we would have a team, I was ecstatic. Finally, I would have a team to cheer for. I didn’t know who the players were because I hadn’t been invested in the other teams, and when I went to Training Camp at the end of September, I vowed to just see who I liked playing the most and choose who I liked without knowing who they were. The first session I went to was a double session after we’d started pre-season games, so I saw two sets of players. I could see the players were still learning to play together, and it was interesting to watch. The second time was a week later, and the players were already more comfortable with each other.
I was impressed by a player I hadn’t seen the week before. It was not only his skill, which was obvious, but how he interacted with the other players too. He was working hard, but also having fun. At the end of practice, some kids started yelling “James” and “Neal” and he skated over to them and tossed a puck over the glass. That’s when I learned his name, James Neal. I’ve watched him at practice and games throughout the season, and I’ve never seen him lose that focus or that fun. So yes, I may be a little biased because he’s my favorite player, but I stand by my belief that this team needs to keep him.
A fighter who makes magic happen on the ice, and a leader who inspires others as well. Why would the Knights not want to keep him? Well, I think they do. I think it’s going to have to be a matter of both sides compromising though.
The Knights have cap money, especially with the higher cap this year, but do they have the time he wants? I’m not privy to what McPhee and Neal (and his agent) are discussing, but my somewhat educated guess—from reading everything I can find and talking it out on Twitter and Facebook with other fans—is that it’s more about term than money. I want him to be here until the end of his career, but I don’t know that long-term is what they’ll give him. 30 doesn’t seem old to me since I’m almost 47, but in hockey it’s not young, and long contracts aren’t easy to come by. Maybe it’s about money too, but I think what Neal brings to this team is worth a bump in salary.
I know Neal wants to stay, and I believe the Knights want him here in Vegas too, so all I can do is sit back and hope they can reach an agreement. Oh, and try to sleep at night until it’s all decided.
About the Author:
Crystal Perkins has always been a big reader but she never thought she would write her own book, until she sat down one day and did it. Her love of all things nerdy, as well as spies and superheroes, is woven through all the characters in her books.
She lives in Las Vegas, where you can find her wrangling authors for the Las Vegas Book Festival – when she isn’t watching the Vegas Golden Knights, reading, or buying too many Sherlock t-shirts. She loves Star Wars AND Star Trek, but if pushed to choose, it will always be Leia and her crew who come out on top. Well, really, it’s Wonder Woman she loves the most, but Leia’s a close second!
A mac and cheese connoisseur, she travels the world looking for the perfect version, while attending book conventions and book signings as a cover for her research.
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