Has James Neal Turned The Corner With Fast Start?

PITTSBURGH, PA - OCTOBER 27: James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his third-period tying goal against the New York Islanders during the game at Consol Energy Center on October 27, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Islanders 3-2 in a shootout. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

While James Neal's torrid start to the season has turned many skeptics into believers, we should beware his history of starting hot, then cooling off.

Are we bearing witness to the dawn of a new era in James Neal's career? Or a rehash of previous episodes?

When the Penguins traded defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas late last season for Matt Niskanen and Neal, the latter player was clearly the showpiece acquisition for the Penguins.

Neal, upon first glance, was a power forward with drive, scoring touch and sufficient potential at his young age. He was perfectly suited to excel with a team whose system relied so heavily on going hard to the net and grinding opponents down. Neal said as much himself after he was acquired.

Neal got a visit for a one-on-one chat with head coach Dan Bylsma. The message? Don't try to overdo it. Just do your thing.

"I was talking a lot about that, just need to come in and do the little things that I've done all my career: be physical, be a presence out there with the puck and stuff will take care of itself," said Neal.

But stuff didn't take care of itself. Neal scored only a single goal in 20 regular season games with the Penguins last season, and one in the Penguins' seven-game playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Prior to arriving in Pittsburgh, Neal had scored 21 goals in 59 games for the Stars, putting him on a pace similar to his first two years in the league, when he scored 24 and 27 goals.

This season, though, the Penguins have gotten what they hoped for from Neal ... and then some.

Through 15 games, Neal has powered his was to team highs of nine goals, 14 points and 64 shots on goal. The closest shooter to Neal in terms of volume has been Chris Kunitz, and he's only recorded 47 attempts on goal. In his 20 regular season games last year, Neal only took 52 shots.

He is simply playing confident hockey, shooting in bunches and doing it intelligently. It's a far cry from the player the we all saw last season. Every shot was at maximum velocity, frequently sailing over the net or striking a goaltender in the chest.

This season, the shots have been varied and accurate, sometimes high and powerful, sometimes low and deceptive. Five-hole goals have been more the norm than the exception. Neal looks like he's in a comfort zone, now acclimated to his surroundings.

"It's more of a comfort feeling just coming in," said Neal after Tuesday's morning skate, before the Penguins' 3-0 win over the New York Islanders. "Feeling comfortable in Pittsburgh and just knowing everybody and knowing what to expect. Last year, you come in off a trade and it was just tough to adjust."

That may all be true, but, as he said earlier, they weren't asking him to do much differently. Recall Bylsma's message: Don't overdo it.

Now, here's the worrying thing. What if Neal's hot start is nothing new? What if it's just a trend similar to what has typified his career thus far? Many Penguins analysts pointed out his tendency to start hot during the preseason. Around the time of the trade, Brandon Worley at SB Nation's Defending Big D pointed out Neal's streakiness, and felt that, perhaps, the Stars were trading him when his value was at its highest.

The problem is, Neal hasn't exactly lived up to the potential he showed that first season. Last year he played with Loui Eriksson and Brad Richards to form one of the most offensively dynamic top lines in the NHL, scoring 27 goals in 78 games. The numbers look good, but once more we return back to the "potential" he displayed early that season.

In the first few months of the 2009-10 season, Neal was off to a torrid start and looked as if he would threaten 40 goals. He was physical and more than any other player on the ice was capable of taking over the game with his powerful forechecking and playmaking ability. There were times as if he'd play like a player possessed and appeared to be capable of spurring the Stars to success all on his own.

Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? Further, Worley points out that Neal had only scored one goal in the 11 games preceding his trade to Pittsburgh. So, rather than Neal having trouble adjusting, it appears as though he was continuing along a familiar trend. The numbers would seem to prove this point.

 Nealscoringtrends_medium

What my crude chart compares is Neal's career output during the first and second halves of the regular season, with Dec. 31 as the arbitrary cutoff date.

The numbers show that, for his career, Neal has averaged .75 points per game at the start of the year, and .45 points per game after the start of the new year. If you include his torrid start to the season, Neal's numbers inflate to .77 ppg. 

That is the difference between a player who scores 63 points in a season, and one who scores 37. And, as Worley mentioned, in 2009-10, Neal actually scored 11 goals in his first 17 games, and 16 in the final 61.

Does this all go to say that the goals actually have less value, or are worth less? No. Goals are goals, and there are plenty of scorers in the NHL who have made careers off of repeatedly hitting hot streaks after cold spells.

What it does say is that, though we may not have seen this before, others have, and while his start to the season has been incredibly positive, it's far too early to say Neal has blossomed into an elite goal scorer... or even to consider signing him to an extension

For more on the Penguins, check out PensBurgh.

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