Thursday, October 14, 2021

"My goal is to get back to scoring 20 goals" -- James Neal overcomes COVID, gets new lease on NHL life with Blues

Veteran suffered from disease last season, feels healthy 
again, hopeful to push Blues back championship level

ST. LOUIS -- Now that he's earned himself and essentially put his name on the dotted line of a new contract, James Neal feels rejuvenated.

And why wouldn't he?
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
James Neal (right) has kicked COVID and has put last season behind him,
hoping to make good use of new beginning with Blues in 2021-22.

After all, considering what the 34-year-old went through last season battling COVID-19 and seeing it literally sucking the life out of his NHL career, Neal has been given a new lease on life.

And he will do so with the Blues, who will finally kick off their 2021-22 season Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche.

In simple terms today, Neal is in a better place. But last year, not so much. It was far from simple.

Neal tested positive for COVID-19 right before heading north of the border to Edmonton, on Dec. 16 or 17th, as he recalled, for his second season with the Oilers and had to quarantine for 16 days in Nashville before doing so. Once he was healthy enough to travel to Canada, he had to quarantine again another 15 days once in Canada.

Needless to say, it was not an optimal time.

"When I got to Edmonton and into Canada, and then after that, once I got my testing done, I was able to go on the ice," Neal said. "For over 30 days, I was locked in the house, so it was really hard to do much and then on top of it, I had really bad symptoms. It took me a while to get back. It was a tough year. It was tough going into camp like that being that far behind, but I used the year to try and set myself up for this year and have a great summer. That's all you can do is control that and I did that."

Neal played in just 29 games with the Oilers and finished with his worst statistical season, five goals and five assists.

But were they all bad? Not necessarily.

According to, Neal actually held a solid 55.03 percent Corsi-for and 54.56 Fenwick percentage last season, numbers that were pretty on par for the numbers he held the previous five seasons. He was on the ice for 22 goals for and just 12 against in 351:01 time on ice last season, which translates to a 64.71 percent rating, his best since 2015-16 with the Nashville Predators. Neal had a high danger Corsi-for of 70 and high danger Corsi-against of 45, which is 60.87 percent. 

So the numbers -- and there are more -- didn't exactly translate to a plethora of goals and points, but the physical feelings didn't fit how Neal was hoping to feel and it dragged him down. 

"It was really tough," Neal said. "It was just ... a lot of your lungs, just how tired you got. You got tired so fast that it was just so weird, but a lot of different guys went through that and it was a battle and it took a long time to kind of shake those symptoms, but I'm back to 100 percent now and I feel really good.

"I had bad symptoms. I was probably in bed over seven days where I barely even moved. It was tough, but once I finally got going again and then I had a great summer, I felt like I was back to normal come summer time, but the year was definitely a struggle."

Neal felt there was more left in him, so he got back to his roots in the Toronto area (he's from nearby Whitby, Ontario) and worked to get himself back to pre-COVID fitness with close friend and former NHLer Gary Roberts, who runs the Gary Roberts High Performance Centre at the Fitness Institute in Toronto, and got a new lease on playing again; he came into camp on a professional tryout liking the overall makeup of the roster and from a previous relationship with Doug Armstrong when Armstrong was general manager of the Dallas Stars, where Neal was drafted in the second round of the 2005 NHL Draft. 

Neal went out and scored a hat trick in the first preseason game against the Minnesota Wild and has not looked back since.  

"I worked a lot on my skating, my speed, I got stronger this summer," Neal said. "Just everything, kind of just got my confidence back that I know I could still play and contribute and be a goal scorer again. It was nice to get out to a good start in the first game and hopefully I could just continue to build."

The odds were stacked against Neal, with the Blues holding a full roster and few, if any, spots available. But when Zach Sanford was traded to the Ottawa Senators for Logan Brown and a conditional 2022 fourth-round pick on Sept. 25, it opened a door for Neal, and he kept grabbing at the opportunity.

Neal would score in the final preseason game Oct. 8 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, giving him four in five games, and was signed to a one-year, $750,000 contract the next day.

"I was just really excited," Neal said. 'I've played a long time in the league, been on a lot of different teams and been in a lot of different situations, but this one was definitely new. I was proud of myself for the summer I had and coming in here and winning myself a spot. I found out with Army there in the morning after the last preseason game, he called me in the office. I was just really excited. It was nice and when the guys found out, it was a good day.

"... I think you try to control everything you can control. I just didn't really want to leave any outs. I knew if I had a good game in the last game, I would kind of just push the envelope for hopefully to get a contract. I just didn't really want to leave any gray area and I thought I had a really solid camp. I came here with a great mindset and I knew I'd have a really good chance to play with really good players. I love the opportunity and this is a great group of guys, so I'm really enjoying it and really happy I'm here."

And the players are glad to have him.

Neal brings life, spice and character, a veteran presence that can't go unnoticed inside a locker room, something that helped fuel the Blues when they made their run in 2019, ala some of the intangibles Pat Maroon brought.

"He's a character, he's been on a lot of winning teams for a reason," Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said of Neal, teammates with the Pittsburgh Penguins from 2011-14. "Personality in a room goes a long way. Fortunately we've had that in this organization for a long time, a lot of good people, guys that generally like being around other guys and beyond.
"He's been a consummate pro. He came in here and you could tell he's a guy that respected the culture here, really immersed himself in that. I thought he's played tremendously well. He's gelled with numerous other guys out there and he's a character. I truly believe in this game it's good to have characters in your locker room, guys who have seen some things, guys who want to keep it light, guys who can raise the intensity of games, who's been though a lot."

"He's a very personable guy, has great energy," Blues coach Craig Berube said. "He brings that to the locker room, on the bench, on the ice. Just coaching against him, I've always noticed that about him. He's that type of guy and has that personality, which is great for a locker room and a team. No doubt about it."

Blues captain Ryan O'Reilly said, "He's obviously a great player and I've played against him for many years. Highly intelligent, knows how to find the net and as a guy who's great for our room. I think he's a guy that talks to everyone, has a good time. It's nice. To be able to come in and have a little veteran presence like that just helps us out. He's a guy that's had a lot of success in this league and you can see it's going to help us throughout the course of the year."

Neal has scored 20 or more goals in 10 of his 13 NHL seasons, but none the previous three; he scored 19 with the Oilers in 55 games in 2019-20. The likelihood of it happening again will be a challenge, but at least to start the season, the Blues will play Neal with playmaker Robert Thomas and fellow goal scorer Vladimir Tarasenko, which has the potential to be a very potent third line.

"Everyone knows he can score goals," Thomas said of Neal. "He's scored a lot of goals in his career. I think the biggest thing is his work ethic on the forecheck, the way he's hounding pucks in the offensive zone and being responsible in the d-zone. I think that part of his game stuck out to all of us. He's potted a bunch of goals. We already knew he could do that, so his all-around game has just stuck out."
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
James Neal (right) scored four goals in five preseason games with the
Blues in the preseason.

"I thought we were really good in our last game," Neal said. "Obviously Columbus didn't have the toughest lineup in there, but we have a good feel for each other and we've had some really good practice days. Two really smart players. We're moving the puck around out there really well. We've got a good feel for each other's tendencies and we'll just continue to get better, but I like the look of the line."

Neal, who is six goals shy of 300 for his career and has 555 points in 850 regular-season games, knows his time is on the downswing in the league and at this point in his career, the financial terms he's playing for are not of the utmost concern, although he will earn an extra income off his buyout with the Oilers. So winning is at the forefront, and playing for a team that recently has won is vital.

"My goal is to get back to scoring 20 goals," Neal said. "I've done a good job here to start off and earn myself a contract. Now I want to get back to being the player I know I can be and help this team win a championship."

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