Sunday, September 26, 2021

Neal's hat trick good first step as PTO trying to earn contract

Veteran's trying to earn job with Blues , scores three goals in 6-2 exhibition 
win over Wild; COVID-filled last year in Edmonton, which bought out his contract

ST. LOUIS -- James Neal has been around the game of hockey long enough to know that careers don't last forever and that jobs are precious.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
James Neal (81) celebrates one of his three goals scored with Steven
Santini in the Blues' 6-2 exhibition win over Minnesota on Saturday.

Considering the type of year Neal, a goal-scoring sniper throughout his 13-year career, had last year in Edmonton, it gives a veteran of his ilk a different perspective of earning a job.

The 34-year-old Neal, who is with the Blues on a professional tryout, got off to the kind of start a player looking for a contract wanted with a hat trick in a 6-2 exhibition win against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday at Enterprise Center.

Neal, playing on a line with veteran Tyler Bozak and 2020 first-round pick Jake Neighbours, is in a training camp for the first time looking for a job.

There were different avenues Neal could have chosen, and even though the odds are stacked against him, Neal found a fit with the Blues in hopes of landing a deal, and maybe can find one since he and Blues general manager Doug Armstrong go back to their roots with the Dallas Stars where Neal played 2008-2011 and Armstrong was the GM there.

"For me, I've been around a long time and played on a lot of different teams," Neal said. "There's a few different options for me, but I felt like this team's a really hard team to play against. I played against them a lot. They're a team that wants to win and is on the verge of winning again. For me, I just wanted an opportunity to come here and show the work I've put in this summer and that I've got lots of game left. It was a good start. I'm excited for the opportunity. I had Army in Dallas. He's my first general manager. It's kind of come full circle here and it's nice to have a tryout here.

"... I wanted to come here. This is a good team, this is a culture around here. You could tell that right from the start of camp the way things are run. I'm excited to be here."

Having to prove yourself over again can't be easy for a veteran player, especially a goal scorer. Neal, who has reached 20 or more goals in the first 10 of his 13 NHL seasons, a 40-goal scorer once (41, 2011-12 with the Pittsburgh Penguins) and the 30-goal marker once (31, 2015-16 with the Nashville Predators) had a rough campaign with the Edmonton Oilers last season, scoring 10 points (five goals, five assists) in 29 games.

Neal had the last two years of his five-year, $28.75 million contract he signed with the Calgary Flames July 2, 2018 bought out by the Oilers, who owe him $1,916,667 over the next four seasons. It was the capper to a season that never got on track, and health played a large role in it.

"It's definitely a different situation. Last year was tough," Neal said. "I went into the year, I had COVID at the start of the year. Nothing was right, it took me a long time to get over it. Just kind of fell behind, then getting bought out and trying to figure out a new path and what I wanted to do, I just kind of focused on myself and getting myself on getting into the shape that I need to be. If I did that, I felt things would take care of themselves. Here I find myself fighting for a job, which is a great way to do it. I've looked forward to the challenge all summer. This is a good team. This is a winning culture here and hopefully I can be a part of it. Just take it one day at a time here and continue to get better. It was a good start tonight."

Neal and fellow veteran, 33-year-old Michael Frolik, are in the same position that could potentially add quality veteran leadership from a group that is two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup but fell void of some of the veteran presence of the past two seasons when the Blues were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.

"I think he's a guy that loves to score goals, loves to be around the boys and I think that just adds onto our group for sure," said Blues winger David Perron, Neal's teammate and linemate with the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18. "Any time you have a chance like him and Frolik to have experienced guys come in and really add to that, they can play up and down the lineup. Those guys in their careers have played either first line or fourth line and at this point, power play, PK for Frolik more. So it depends how they fit with our group, how their camp goes and all that stuff. We're excited to see them and really be on board. It shows that our team's still got a chance to compete, to contend with the good teams when you have guys like that that want to join our group for professional tryouts like this. I think for me and Neal, we certainly have chemistry from that year. It still has been a while. Things have changed, but we're in training camp together. It's really hard to say those first couple days. There's not much happening out there. Guys are showing intensity instead of smarts yet, but if we do get a chance to play an exhibition game together or something, it would be fun to see."

Neal scored from a sharp angle along the corner boards on the first period Saturday on Wild goalie Kappo Kahkonen that made it 2-0 in the second period, then scored the fourth and fifth Blues goals, which capped his hat trick on a strip, steal and score in the third period to cap off a positive first impression on Blues coaches.

"He's scored a lot of goals in his career and he knows how to score," Blues coach Craig Berube said of Neal. "He worked hard tonight and he wanted to make a difference. He did. He had a solid game.

"They still want to play the game, so they're coming in here, I wouldn't say they're desperate, but they're going to give you everything they've got. I thought both of them did that tonight. They competed hard and they worked hard tonight, so that's what you're going to get out of them. ... They've got to come in and earn a spot so they're going to give you everything they've got."

"They both played great tonight," Blues center Ivan Barbashev said of Neal and Frolik. ""It's really nice to see that they're trying to make the team and just to prove that they can be here. I think they both did really well. That's what it's about in the training camp. You're trying to compete for a spot and there's not many spots left to be honest, but those guys are fighting really hard."

Neal finished with 15:16 ice time and had four shots on goal, two hits and was 1-for-2 on the face-off dot, while Frolik, who also scored along with free agent signee Brandon Saad, played 13:40 with three shots on goal and one blocked shot.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
James Neal is congratulated by the bench Saturday after scoring one of
his three goals in a 6-2 win over the Minnesota Wild.

When Neal scored his third of the game, naturally, the hats started coming down from a nice-sized crowd that appreciated his work.

No matter what happens the rest of training camp, Neal just wants his name in the ring when roster spots are decided on, and with the trade of Zach Sanford to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday for St. Louisan Logan Brown and a 2022 conditional pick, who knows what may lie in store for the Blues for a player six goals shy of 300 for his career (294 goals, 261 assists) in 850 regular-season games.

"It's a good feeling," Neal said. "The work I've put in this summer, I just wanted to get back to myself. It's nice to see that happen. I know it's nice to play with 'Bozie' and Jake there. Jake's a young kid who's a great player coming up and I've played against 'Bozie' a long time and he made some great plays out there. It was a fun game, fun first one for sure."

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