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James Neal keeps getting a raw deal

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This post is part of Golden Knights Day on PHT…

Look, not many people are going to shed tears for a guy making $5 million per year, especially a player who’s been guilty of some dirty hits.

So, James Neal might not be the most sympathetic figure possible. It’s easier to feel bad for, say, Jonathan Marchessault, who’s under pressure to find true security and a consistent spot even after scoring 30 goals.

Neal, 29, has bounced around quite a bit for someone who’s been such a steady source of goals. Since 2008-09, his 238 goals rank as the 15th-most in the NHL, more than the likes of John Tavares, Max Pacioretty, Daniel Sedin, and Jamie Benn.

Neal’s first bit of career turbulence came when he was once teammates with Benn; the Dallas Stars sent Neal and Matt Niskanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Alex Goligoski on Feb. 21, 2011.

However Neal felt about that move, he found outstanding chemistry on a line with Evgeni Malkin. He scored 89 goals and 184 points in 199 games with the Penguins, peaking with 40 goals and 81 points in 80 contests in 2011-12.

Malkin goosed those numbers, but he clearly benefited from Neal’s presence, winning a Hart Trophy and scoring title during that 2011-12 campaign.

As well as things often went from a stats perspective, the Penguins experienced some letdowns, and Neal was jettisoned in a trade with the Nashville Predators.

His comments to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review back in October 2014 were a real bummer.

“I mean, it wasn’t really in my hands,” Neal said. “I was a part of that team, and I never even got a call from the new coaches or the new general manager. The only time I got a call was when I had been traded.”

However Malkin felt about Neal being traded, he’s doing fine, what with the Penguins winning back-to-back Stanley Cup titles since that trade. Neal ended up being productive for the Predators … though that opened the door for a twisting the knife moment: Patric Hornqvist, the featured player Pittsburgh received in that trade, scored the Cup-clinching goal against Nashville:

Sheesh.

If that wasn’t enough, the Predators (justifiably) chose to protect four defensemen in the expansion draft, and the Golden Knights couldn’t be dissuaded from selecting Neal.

So, to review: Neal has been traded twice and now selected in the expansion draft. Even with a modified no-trade clause, his run of having little control over his situation continued. He saw the team that traded him repeat as champions and now he leaves a well-built contender for an expansion team.

Oh yeah, and with only a year remaining on his contract, there’s pressure to earn his next one. What if playing for the Golden Knights hurts his numbers, and thus his market value? What if another trade happens and that doesn’t work out?

Those are all unfortunate possibilities for Neal, who should maybe change his nickname to “The Raw Deal.”

Some parting advice, then: Neal should hold out for an ironclad no-movement clause in his next … deal.

Panthers face ghosts of past mistakes in Golden Knights

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The Vegas Golden Knights are one of the great success stories of the 2017-18 season in the NHL so far. The Florida Panthers are not.

Such notions would already make Sunday’s game feel a touch awkward, but in seeing the Golden Knights tonight, many Panthers fans might feel like they’re opening the door to an alternate reality in which the team didn’t revert back to the Dale Tallon era.

As TSN’s John Shannon notes, the Golden Knights feature eight former Panthers employees in some form, including head coach Gerard Gallant plus key scorers Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault.

Now, if you’re expecting the players or coach to stir the pot when it comes to revenge, you’re out of luck. All three gave boilerplate answers about just wanting to get two standings points tonight. No bulletin board material there, folks.

Instead, Panthers executives are providing some drama for us.

In seeing one of the Golden Knights’ many cheeky tweets, in this case trumpeting Smith’s presence on the team, Panthers executive Doug Cifu provided an interesting reply that was eventually deleted. Sports Illustrated’s Alex Prewitt was among those who got a screen grab of it, and it’s a chin-scratcher:

Again, Cifu deleted the physical tweet, and he explained that he was attempting to be nice and that his tweet was “totally misconstrued.”

Even in Twitter form, the Panthers seem like they’re operating under the motto of “One step forward, two steps backward,” and today serves as a cruel example of how things don’t need to work this way.

Now, look, the Golden Knights enjoyed an expansion process that the NHL engineered to generate a more respectable early product than anything we saw in Florida’s era. Beyond that, even Gallant would probably acknowledge that there have been some positive bounces (although you could easily counter with a mention of Vegas’ many goalie injuries).

Still, it’s tough for this not to shine a light on the Golden Knights’ stellar start and the Panthers cellar dwelling.

[Golden Knights get to 20 wins faster than any other expansion team.]

The Panthers chose to fire Gallant during their short-lived “analytics-friendly” period. Then, in reaction to that time, Tallon almost seemed to recklessly expel elements of that regime by handing the Golden Knights two useful forwards in Marchessault and Smith when only one really needed to go (and Florida could have tried to sway Vegas into taking someone less valuable, too).

It all echoes back to Tallon’s much-mocked comment about being back in control, especially since the Panthers’ situation hasn’t dramatically improved since then:

Now, it’s likely that Tallon is merely glad to be running things again, yet it’s tough to avoid a snicker or two considering context.

Ultimately, the Golden Knights have profited off of Florida’s frenzied ways. Win or lose, Vegas is gaining from unforced errors on the Panthers’ part.

No doubt about it, these narratives will only sting more if the Golden Knights add another L to the Panthers’ largely miserable season, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Predators still on fire with addition of Kyle Turris

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In hockey, a great idea on paper doesn’t always work out on the ice.

Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky didn’t set the NHL on fire during their brief run together with the Blues. The days of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne in Colorado are best forgotten (and many people have done just that). Peter Forsberg and the Predators mixed like water and oil.

So, there was always the risk that the Kyle Turris trade wouldn’t work out for Nashville. Instead, it’s been a smash success beyond just about anyone’s expectations. Even GM David Poile would probably admit that he didn’t expect this sort of boost.

As The Tennessean’s Adam Vingan notes, Nashville sports a 13-2-2 record with Turris in the lineup, the best mark in the NHL since Nov. 11.

In one’s mind, you could picture Turris blending well with two forwards who’ve shown promise but hadn’t yet broken through in young forward Kevin Fiala and veteran sniper Craig Smith. Their production really has been a sight to behold.

Turris in 17 games: four goals, 13 assists for 17 points. He’s currently on a seven-game point streak (two goals, eight assists).

Fiala in 17 games: eight goals, eight assists for 16 points. Fiala is on a seven-game point streak, and it’s goal-heavy with six tallies and three helpers.

Smith in 17 games: eight goals, eight assists for 16 points.

It’s a line that’s checking off just about every box you can ask for when it comes to driving play and dominating opponents.

While Fiala’s getting over that hideous leg injury in an inspiring way (note: it doesn’t seem like that derailed the promising forward, a real concern considering his speed), Smith’s evolution might be the most enticing part of this line’s rise.

As The Tennessean’s Joe Rexrode reports, Turris has been impressed with Smith, and not just by his skill.

“One thing I didn’t realize was how strong he is,” Turris said. “Like, he’s a really strong guy. He has a great shot and I knew he was fast, but the way he competes and battles along the walls, he’s a force.”

Smith, 28, showed some great efforts at times during the 2017 Stanley Cup Final, including generating nine shots on goal in Games 2 and 3. Still, he was limited to a goal and an assist during that series, another missed opportunity for him to gain more mainstream attention.

It all sets the stage for the Predators to be a frightening matchup.

If you’re coaching the opposing team, do you key on Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenViktor Arvidsson, or Turris’ line? When everything’s running on all cylinders, Nashville could conceivably boast two lines that are first-line-caliber and top four defensemen who could be featured blueliners on most other NHL teams.

Now, it’s still December, and one can almost guarantee that Turris, Smith, and Fiala will see their struggles. There might even be enough cold streaks to break up this trio from time to time.

Generally speaking, Peter Laviolette’s bright enough not to mess with something that works, and so far this trio has passed every test with flying colors.

The Predators currently lead the Central Division and Western Conference considering the games in hand edge they have on the Blues, but it’s all in service of trying to win the Stanley Cup after finishing two wins short last time. The Turris trade clearly puts them in a better position to do just that.

It might just make them a favorite.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Hextall’s patience, Elliott’s goaltending playing big roles in Flyers’ turnaround

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PHILADELPHIA — Step inside the Philadelphia Flyers dressing room, look to your right and you’ll notice above a clock on the wall is a sign that reads, “The Star Of The Team Is The Team Itself.” That message has been the thread through an interesting month for the team as they experienced the dregs of a 10-game losing streak before flipping the script and winning six straight.

That sixth win came Saturday night during a 2-1 overtime victory against the Dallas Stars making the Flyers the third team in NHL history (1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, 2005 San Jose Sharks) to reel off six victories in a row after a 10-game winless streak.

It wasn’t that long ago that fans were chanting for general manager Ron Hextall to fire the head coach and there was talk of shipping bodies out of town to shake things up. Those requests, however, were not in Hextall’s plans. The GM defended his team, defended his coach and was not going to make moves for the sake of change. That show of belief was well-received by his players.

“It means a lot. Obviously, Hexy has faith in us. He’s a very patient man, the coaching staff as well,” said forward Wayne Simmonds.

The front office wasn’t going to tear things apart and the players weren’t going to come unglued, even with the pressure of the losing streak growing with each defeat. They can look back now and see that as a takeaway from that experience.

“The most positive thing [was] we didn’t separate, we stuck together as a team and that’s why we’re winning games right now,” defenseman Ivan Provorov said.

The play of the five skaters on the ice has meshed well with the play of goaltender Brian Elliott, who’s been spectacular during this stretch. During this winning streak, he’s been named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week and has posted a .952 even strength save percentage.

“Our team has confidence in him. That’s a real position of strength for our bench, for the guys that are out on the ice,” Hakstol said. “It’s not just the things that you see on a nightly basis on game nights. He does such a real good job on a daily basis of approaching his day of work and that’s something that guys can feed off. They know he does the work. He’s prepared and I think that gives everyone a level of confidence coming into the game.”

It’s been a two-way effort for the Flyers during the streak. They haven’t allowed more than two goals a game and just grinded out a pair of 2-1 victories.. After averaging only two goals scored per game during that 10-game slide, which included being shutout three times, the offense has pumped in 3.5 goals per night. The power play is also cooking at 27.3 percent and their team shooting percentage is moving in the right direction going from 6.45 percent during their November slide to 9.23.

Adding to Provorov’s positive note about what came from the losing streak was also their standing in the Metropolitan Division. You’d think a team that did as poor as they did in November would see themselves with a major hole to dig out of by Christmas, but picking up five loser points helped keep the Flyers a bit above water. And now after picking up 12 out of a possible 12 points, they currently reside four points out of a wild card spot and six points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for third in the division.

Hakstol doesn’t care if you want to call it confidence or swagger, but the Flyers are carrying themselves in that manor. Winning cures all, right? A 10-game streak could have really done damage to the team’s psyche and affected them going forward, but as Hextall said last month, they believed — despite the losses piling up — they weren’t playing bad hockey. It was just a matter of time before they started digging up again.

“You can be playing really well, but when you’re going good you just have that mentality that you’re not going to take less than finding a way to win a game. I can tell you, when you’re on the other end of close losses, tight losses, it starts to wear at you,” said Hakstol.

“But you have a couple of good things happen, along with working hard, paying attention to detail and really sticking together, you get that little injection of adrenaline that helps push you in the right direction.”

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Job of the Hutton

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Players of the Night

  • Carter Hutton has quietly been playing well when used (sparingly) by the St. Louis Blues, but he stepped into the spotlight on Saturday, guiding his team to a 2-0 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

The high-powered Jets fired 48 shots on goal in this one, yet none beat Hutton, who nabbed the ninth shutout of his solid career. The 31-year-old bumped his save percentage up to a whopping .949 so far in 2017-18. He set a Blues record in doing so.

  • On Friday, Jack Eichel collected a hat trick and an assist in a losing effort. Gabriel Landeskog upped the ante one night later – literally – by scoring three goals and two assists in a game his Avalanche managed to lose anyway.

As much attention as Nathan MacKinnon is grabbing (rightfully, as he added two goals to his impressive season so far), this marks the second hat trick of the season for Landeskog. Not bad with it still being 2017, and all.

This was a pretty nasty game between the Avalanche and Lightning, at least at times.

Some key highlights

Technically, you can spell overtime without Alex Ovechkin

(Ovechkin’s already in select GWG company.)

Shayne Gostisbehere scored both of Philly’s goals, but the antics between Wayne Simmonds and Ben Bishop were the real highlight here:

Speaking of Nathan MacKinnon, this is something else:

Mathew Barzal to Jordan Eberle a combination that torments Darcy Kuemper in overtime and Peter Chiarelli, always:

Finally, Jonathan Gibson flashes the glove in defeat:

Factoids

The Lightning keep piling up different milestones and accomplishments, with Mikhail Sergachev ranking among those today (as Tampa Bay won its seventh in a row):

The cold weather didn’t slow Erik Karlsson down (more on that outdoor game here):

Pekka Rinne‘s really been rattling off some milestones lately.

Scores

Oilers 3, Wild 2
Rangers 3, Bruins 2 (OT)
Blues 2, Jets 0
Islanders 4, Kings 3 (OT)
Hurricanes 2, Blue Jackets 1
Flyers 2, Stars 1 (OT)
Senators 3, Canadiens 0
Capitals 3, Ducks 2 (OT)
Penguins 4, Coyotes 2
Lightning 6, Avalanche 5
Predators 2, Flames 0

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.