Soon-to-be-restricted-free-agent James Neal did something this season that raised his value considerably: he started scoring goals. Lots of them. Consistently.
With Penguins fans demanding that the club lock him up long-term, general manager Ray Shero did exactly that Sunday, inking Neal to a six-year, $30 million contract extension that keeps him with the Penguins through 2017-2018.
Neal, 24, is the type of winger who seems custom-built to find success with the Penguins. A big, strong, aggressive skater who never shies from shooting -- he leads the NHL in shots -- or delivering a hit, Neal has thrived playing in coach Dan Bylsma's system on the wing of rejuvenated center Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin makes the plays, Neal finishes them. Linemate Chris Kunitz, meanwhile, does a ton of dirty work for the duo, driving to the net, creating space and unsettling opponents.
That has allowed Neal tons of ice time, room to maneuver and time to shoot the puck. And he's done so with aplomb. Neal has already set career highs with 30 goals and 56 points this season. He should eclipse 40 goals. No Penguin not named Evgeni or Sidney has scored 30 goals since Alex Kovalev in 2001-02.
That type of goal-scoring prowess doesn't grow on trees, even among the highly-skilled, professional hockey players plying their trade on a line with one of the best players in the world.
There is risk in the deal. Neal, historically, has been a first-half player. Throughout his NHL career, he has seen his production fall off considerably over the course of each season, so much so that he's performed like a 63-point player before New Year's Day and a 37-point player after it.
That, of course, hasn't happened this season. Neal has continued to produce with aplomb. This likely means he has turned the corner on the inconsistency of his youth, but that's no guarantee yet. It all creates a minor risk, but still one worth considering.
For what Neal brings to the table, the money makes sense, the contract length makes sense, and the deal is an overall win. The annual $5 million cap hit may seem sizable upon first inspection (after all Jordan Staal only brings in $4 million a season and Kris Letang is at $3.5 million), but as the NHL salary cap inches higher every year, so do contract numbers.
On the whole, it's a good deal locking up Neal. It will create some complications this season as the team continues to toe the line on the salary cap maximum, but it's always a good problem to have to choose between too much talent and too little.