Saturday, October 9, 2021

Neal puts in all on line in preseason finale to earn contract

Veteran forward scores in preseason finale Friday for Blues in bid to win 
roster spot; brings savvy, experience, net-front presence to roster in need of it

ST. LOUIS -- If James Neal was on the spot with one final audition to try and earn a contract with the Blues this season, the veteran forward certainly didn't disappoint.

* UPDATE -- And moments after this story was posted, the Blues announced Neal and the Blues have agreed to terms on a one-year contract worth $750,000.

Neal, 34, went out with a bang, being one of seven goal scorers in a 7-3 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday at Enterprise Center.
(St. Louis Blues photo)
James Neal (right) is all smiles celebrating with teammates (from left) Marco
Scandella, Robert Thomas and Vladimir Tarasenko after scoring Friday.

Neal and veteran Michael Frolik were brought in by general manager Doug Armstrong before the start of training camp in a crowded locker room as far as jobs went. Even with the lack of jobs that were available, Neal wanted to come here and earn his way onto a roster he feels is ready to be a contender.

"I feel like it's a really good fit," Neal said before Friday's game. "That was a big reason why I wanted to come here too. I knew there wasn't spots open, but I felt if I could come in here and I knew the shape I was in and I had lots of game left. I feel like it's a really good fit and I'm just going to continue to play my game and play it well. I hope things work out because I really like it here."

Neal didn't making the decision easy. In fact, he did all he could to earn a contract.

Keep in mind that Neal will earn $1,916,667 over the next four seasons from his buyout by the Edmonton Oilers this past summer, so it probably wouldn't cost the Blues much to get him signed for a season.

And it didn't.

"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."

Neal finished with four goals this preseason in five games, including a hat trick against the Minnesota Wild in a 6-2 win in the preseason opener. What Neal has brought to the table is his ability to play well, as Berube said recently, from the tops of the circles on down in the offensive zone with his ability to drive the net, make plays along the walls, protect pucks and forecheck with authority.

Neal finished with 14:53 time on ice Friday and had a team-high five of their 29 shots on goal on six attempts playing on a line with Vladimir Tarasenko and Robert Thomas.

"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.

"... It's been cool for me to see the way he's handled everything and the effort he brings every day. I think it's been cool for me to see and refreshing for me to see."

Robert Bortuzzo felt Neal did all he could to earn a contract.

"Yeah I really do," the Blues defenseman said. "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. 

"These decisions are out of my hands, but I think he's put himself in a good spot. He's kind of meshed well with the room and whatever happens, happens now."

Neal is a 13-year veteran with 555 points (294 goals, 261 assists) in 850 NHL games that can bring more than just game to the locker room but an experienced presence that could blend in well with a veteran locker room.

Something that Pat Maroon once brought to the Blues?

"Different, but a character nonetheless," Bortuzzo said. "Our game's unique in that matter that there's guys out there you'll hear stories about and you'll remember. He's a character, he's been on a lot of winning teams for a reason. 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."

Guys that can rub off on younger players, like Thomas, who see veterans like this battling for a job.

"I think it's pretty cool," Thomas said. "I think a lot of us younger guys, it kind of brings a little bit more energy and kind of reminds us of a couple years ago. I think it's good for all of us to see that and kind of feed off him."

The Blues will have to submit their 23-man roster and be cap-compliant by 4 p.m. (CT) Monday. Their roster currently sits at 29, so decisions loom. Their current cap situation is at $518,000-plus, according to Cap Friendly, over the $81.5 million cap ceiling at 23 players, which includes contracts for Kyle Clifford ($1 million) and Mackenzie MacEachern ($900,000). Adding Neal on a $750,000 league-minimum contract put them over, but they will get relief when forward Oskar Sundqvist, who has a $2.75 million cap hit, is put on long-term injured reserve.
(St. Louis Blues/Scott Rovak)
Blues forward James Neal (81) battles for net front position for a loose
puck in front of Minnesota's Calen Addison (left) and Kappo Kahkonen.

What does the team do with Klim Kostin and/or Dakota Joshua, who are waiver-exempt? Do they risk losing Logan Brown, recently acquired in a trade with the Ottawa Senators for Zach Sanford, through waivers? Or Clifford and or MacEachern, who are also waiver-eligible? And what about Jake Neighbours, who has certainly played his way into the conversation here by at least earning nine games before deciding what the Blues do with the 2020 first-round pick?

* UPDATE -- Joshua, along with goalie Colten Ellis and defenseman Scott Perunovich were assigned to Springfield of the American Hockey League, and Brown and MacEachern were placed on waivers Saturday afternoon.

"Well, you know, there's still decisions to be made to be honest with you guys," Berube said after the game Friday, trying to play it coy.

Big decisions.

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