James Neal's preseason was impressive enough to earn him a one-year contract with the St. Louis Blues. Now the veteran forward will attempt to live up to his nickname and prove that his stellar performance over five exhibition games was the real deal.
Neal, 34, was one of the most consistent forwards in the NHL for most of the last decade, scoring at least 20 goals in 10 straight seasons from 2008-09 through 2017-18. After he signed a five-year deal with the Flames prior to the 2018-19 season, however, things began to go south. He had just seven goals and 12 assists in 63 games for Calgary, and the following offseason, the Flames dealt him to the division-rival Oilers in exchange for Milan Lucic.
He seemed to be energized by a fresh start during his first season in Edmonton, scoring 19 goals with 12 assists in 55 games before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the regular season to an early conclusion. Neal contracted the coronavirus prior to the 56-game 2020-21 campaign, though, and it seemed to hinder his performance. He missed training camp and the early part of the regular season, and when he did return, he was unable to get in any sort of rhythm. Neal finished with just five goals and five assists in 29 games, and the Oilers bought him out of the final two seasons of his contract in July.
No club offered Neal a guaranteed contract this offseason, though a few offered him a professional tryout agreement — a no-strings-attached arrangement that provides a player with the opportunity to showcase his skills without the promise of a roster spot. Just over a week before training camp began, Neal accepted the Blues' offer, looking to play his way onto a team entering its third season since winning the Stanley Cup.
While the Sept. 25 deal that sent Zach Sanford to Ottawa increased Neal's roster odds, the veteran forward entered camp with the mindset that they were stacked against him. The talent on the Blues' roster and the culture within the organization, however, made the offer too intriguing to pass up.
"I knew there (weren't) spots open," Neal said. “The culture’s really good here. The guys are great, it’s a great locker room, everyone’s fun. They love being around each other and they want to win.”
Neal did everything in his power to earn a spot on St. Louis' regular-season roster, scoring a team-high four goals, including a hat trick against Minnesota in the preseason opener. His strong play was rewarded Saturday, when the Blues signed him to a one-year deal worth $750,000.
Neal credits his excellent preseason showing to the hungry mindset he developed after getting bought out by Edmonton. “I put in a lot of work this summer and want to get back to where I know I can be. It’s paying off," Neal said. "I’m skating well, I feel confident with the puck and good things are happening out there.”
As much as Neal needed St. Louis to give him an opportunity, the Blues may have had an even greater need for a player with his skill set. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound forward is adept at getting to the net and plays a heavy, physical game that allows him to make an impact whether he's on the first or fourth line. The Blues have lacked that type of presence since Pat Maroon departed following the 2018-19 season. Along with fellow free agent addition Brandon Saad and rookie Jake Neighbours, who are smaller than Neal but play a similar rugged style, the three-time All-Star should make it easier for the Blues to play the physical brand of hockey that head coach Craig Berube prefers — a brand they struggled to play last season without an effective net-front presence.
With over half of the players from the Blues' 2019 Stanley Cup-winning roster gone and the current roster much younger and less experienced, Neal also provides the potential for some valuable leadership. The 13-year veteran has played in the playoffs each year since 2011 and reached the Stanley Cup Final in back-to-back seasons, in 2017 with the Predators and 2018 with the Golden Knights. While Neal has yet to hoist the Cup, he hopes to impart the lessons he's learned in all those high-pressure moments on his younger teammates.
“That’s one thing I haven’t done — win a Stanley Cup. I’ve come really close," Neal said. "I’ve played a lot of playoff games, I’ve played in the Final twice, and I can add that to this group.”
After his outstanding preseason earned him a spot on the Blues' roster, Neal will try to carry that momentum into a successful bounce-back season — and perhaps finally win that elusive Stanley Cup.