It's hard to believe that a once precocious James Neal used to consider himself more of a skilled guy with great hands.
Now possessing a more rugged 6-foot-2, 208-pound frame, Neal knows he's a valuable asset in the dirty areas where only the strong survive -- along the boards and in the slot.
That's precisely what Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero had in mind when he dealt promising blueliner Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars in exchange for Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen on Feb. 21. The plan is to eventually have Neal working alongside Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
"As a forward, we've really liked what we see in James," Shero said at the time of the deal. "He's at the top of our list for any young power forward in the League."
Unfortunately, with Crosby sidelined the last 35 games with concussion-like symptoms, the plan to have Neal working with one of the League's premier centers hasn't exactly come to fruition -- yet.
"It's taken time to adjust and learn the systems, learn a whole new game plan," Neal told NHL.com. "Thing is, you trained to do one thing (in Dallas) and you leave that team and train to do another thing. But I've been feeling more comfortable every game and I'm starting to play a little better."
Neal is playing better and logging 17:41 of ice time per game under coach Dan Bylsma, but has just 1 goal and 4 assists in 15 games to show for it since the trade. However, he's also accrued 25 hits and, most notably, recorded two game-winning shootout goals in Pittsburgh's last four games. He's connected for three shootout goals in four attempts as a member of the Penguins.
His only miss came on March 24 in a 2-1 shootout victory over the Flyers. He might have an opportunity to avenge it on Tuesday when the Penguins play host to Philadelphia at Consol Energy Center (7:00 p.m., CSN-PH, FS-P) in the sixth and final meeting of the season. Pittsburgh enters the matchup having participated in four straight games decided by the shootout -- all victories.
Prior to joining the Pens, Neal had come up empty on his last 12 attempts in the shootout with the Stars. In fact, he was 0-for-10 in 2009-10. He was 5-for-7 as a rookie in 2008-09.
"When I was younger, I was smaller and kind of developed the hands and tried to be a little more skilled, but once I started to grow and get bigger I kind of changed my game into a power forward," Neal said. "I still have that little bit of touch around the net and I think that's what has made my game effective. I like being the first in on the forecheck, creating battles and being physical, but at the same time, I love to score and put the puck in the net."
Neal has been working left wing on a line with center Maxime Talbot and Alex Kovalev with Crosby on the mend.
"I'm sure the goals will come, and I'm doing the little things to get good chances and shots on net, so that's all I could ask for," he said. "I'll get the bounces eventually, but as long as the team is winning and making a push for the playoffs, I'm happy."
The Penguins are winning all right, taking eight of their last 10 games, while moving within two points of the Eastern Conference-leading Flyers. And while Neal has only chipped in with one goal over the last nine games, he is getting his opportunities with 2.6 shots per game since joining the Penguins.
Bylsma was recently asked to assess the play of Neal and Niskanen in their first month with the team.
"I don't think there's been an immediate bang that you'd like to feel, but I know that the way they play and what they add to our team has been a part of us having success in the last month," Bylsma said. "And I see a lot of good things in what they bring to the team and the way they play. I think it's going to be a matter of time before we may get the results that you kind of look at when you see the statistics."
Niskanen has 1 goal, 2 points and 12 blocked shots in 13 games since joining the Pens. Keep in mind that even veteran sniper Kovalev, who was also acquired via trade with the Ottawa Senators for a draft pick on Feb. 24, has produced just 1 goal and 3 points in 14 games. But Kovalev, much like Neal, has made his mark in the shootout -- going 3-for-5 with two game-winners.
"It's just a matter of time," Bylsma said. "Neal has been in those situations, but it just hasn't happened yet, but he's added to the team game and added to the way we play. They've done it on both sides of the puck. So I'm pretty pleased and I know we'll see the name on the score sheet."
Neal, a second-round selection (No. 33) by the Stars in the 2005 Entry Draft, played a part in Team Canada's gold-medal winning performance at the 2007 World Junior Championship in Sweden. He'd represent the Western Conference at the 2009 YoungStars Game at Bell Centre in Montreal, finishing his rookie campaign with 24 goals and 37 points in 77 games.
Neal has scored 20-plus goals and over 40 points in each of his three seasons in the League.
"It was a big change coming to Pittsburgh and I expected that but it's been exciting and I came to a great team … a hard-working, detailed group of guys that love to win and it's been fun," Neal said. "They made me feel at home. Everyone was very welcoming and that made it a lot easier. It's a fun bunch and it's a great atmosphere around the room and around the rink."
After spending two seasons in the Western Conference, Neal hasn't really seen much of a difference in the level of talent in the East.
"The East has some fast, speedy teams that love to free wheel and love to go back and forth and trade chances," Neal said. "For me, you could say that's a little different. But other than that, there's not a big difference. The travel is awesome because it's much shorter. You get on a plane and every flight is only two-and-a-half hours. In Dallas, you got on a plane and it was longer, most of the time."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale