Tag: contract year

Pittsburgh Penguins v Tampa Bay Lightning - Game Four

James Neal hopes to improve next season with Penguins


At the trade deadline last March, the Penguins thought they finally found a winger who could make beautiful music with Sidney Crosby. Of course, things didn’t work out exactly as they had hoped. Crosby was sidelined with a concussion at the beginning of January and the newly acquired Neal never had an opportunity to show what he could do with the superstar center by his side.

The Whitby, Ontario native only managed a single goal in 20 games with the Penguins down the stretch of the regular season. More importantly for Pittsburgh, he only netted a single goal (and two points) in the Penguins 7-game defeat to Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs last year.

It wasn’t only the absence of a true #1 center that held Neal back last season. Like many players before him, he learned first-hand that a mid-season trade can turn their world upside down. Neal spoke of the chaos that surrounds a player when they’re traded to another team in the middle of the season:

“You get a call one day and then you’re on a plane and you’re in Pittsburgh and your whole life changes in a matter of minutes. It’s crazy, but at the same time, it’s exciting. It’s a great chance to play on an amazing team with amazing players. It’s definitely for the better and I couldn’t be happier that it happened.”

The Penguins were clearly excited when they had the opportunity to acquire him (and Matt Niskanen) from the Dallas Stars for defenseman Alex Goligoski. Even though the stats weren’t where the wanted them to be last season, the organization is still looking at Neal to be one of their main producers on wing next season.

For his part, Neal is doing everything possible this offseason to make sure he thrives once the season starts next season. He’s been training with well-known fitness nut and former NHLer Gary Roberts as he works to get into peak physical shape for next season. Neal talked about his offseason conditioning with Roberts:

“My training is focused on what I need to improve in on the ice. Everyone wants to get faster. A big part of playing my game is skating and speed. You always try to strengthen your legs and get faster on the ice. At the same time, when you play a physical game and you’re in the corners and battling in front, you’ve got to have the strength to do that.”

The term you may be looking for right now is “contract year.” Obviously, Neal wants to improve upon his numbers and help the Penguins get back to the elite level they have seen over the last few years. But from a personal standpoint, this wouldn’t be a bad time to have a breakout season. The soon-to-be 24-year-old is a restricted free agent at the end of the 2011-12 season and he could use a good season if he hopes to cash in on the opportunity.

In just three full season, Neal has already shown that he consistently score goals at the NHL level. He’s averaged 24 goals and 46 points over the course of his short career—numbers the Penguins hope increase by playing next to the likes of Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin for a full season next year.  No wonder Dan Bylsma thinks the Penguins will be better next season.

Last time around, the Dallas Stars gave him a 2-year deal worth $5.75 million as they expected him to continue to improve his game. Whether it was due to the mid-season trade, mounting expectations, or the weight of a new contract, Neal saw his game plateau last season. But if Neal can rediscover the game that has already made him a three-time 20-goal scorer, he has the potential to breakout for the Penguins next season.

And get a sizeable raise at the same time.

Dustin Penner response to GM Dean Lombardi’s softball comment, “more kindling for the fire”

Dallas Stars v Los Angeles Kings

It’s no secret that Los Angeles Kings have seen plenty of action this offseason. Between trading for Mike Richards, signing Simon Gagne as a free agent, negotiating with star defenseman Drew Doughty, and (very publicly) courting Brad Richards, there’s no shortage of story lines surrounding the organization. Yet many believe a big part of their success next season will hinge on a player who is already under contract for next season: Dustin Penner.

More specifically, it will hinge on Penner’s conditioning and work in the offseason. Scouts around the league agree that he has all the tools to be a star player in the NHL, but his conditioning has been called into question in the past.  Earlier this spring, Kings GM Dean Lombardi made waves when he spoke of his free agent acquisition Dustin Penner and his perceived lack of fitness when he arrived with the Kings in March.

“Dustin is at the crossroads of his career,” Lombardi wrote in an email to Sporting News. “He can choose to use his athletic ability to either become a dominant power forward in the National Hockey League or be a dominant number four hitter for the El Cid Lounge in a men’s softball league — the choice is his.”

Now we have a response from Penner:

“I’m a pretty good softball player. What he’s saying is… if you’re an intelligent hockey player in the position I’m in I know what he’s saying and I know what he wants out of me. [It’s] just more kindling for the fire.”

Penner’s short tenure with the Kings has already been filled with its share of speed bumps. He only scored 2 goals and 6 points in 19 regular season games after he was acquired at the trade deadline (Penner was quick to point out that he was a point-per-game player at the beginning of his stint before Anze Kopitar was lost for the season). In the playoffs, he chipped in a goal and an assist before the Kings were bounced in 6 games against the San Jose Sharks. Expectations were certainly higher for the team than another first round exit after the high profile addition–but things didn’t work out for Penner or the Kings as they would have hoped.

Kings fans can take solace in the fact that Penner is already showing up to the Kings training facility three times per week to get into the best shape of his career for next season. The hard work is something that head coach Terry Murray has noticed:

“I’m really happy about that. This goes back to a conversation we had right at the end of the year. It’s important to know who we are, as an LA King and become part of OUR team, and our culture, and our structure. To be a player who I expect him to be. To play upwards of 20 minutes a night in a game, it’s going to demand a lot on the physical side of it. He’s been here since the end of the season. He’s worked very hard with (strength and conditioning coach) Tim Adams and we’re starting to see some signs of progress.”

Later, Murray agreed that Penner’s pride that could be a motivating factor after the harsh criticism he received during his few months with the Kings.

“Pride is a very good word. I think sometimes as coaches and people in management and even people in the media, we have a tendency to go in that direction and see if there’s going to be a response. Hopefully there’s a reaction here… and it’s a positive reaction. We need him to just follow through with what he’s been doing so far for the rest of the summer. It’s a big, big push and he’s got some catching up to do. This last couple of months is going to be critical and important so I CAN use him in those situations and live up to the expectations. So he can be the player that he knows he can be.”

For his part, Penner has already talked about how he wants to bring his game to a new level next season. In addition to winning, he’s “shooting for personal bests in his statistical categories and to become more of a leader.” From all accounts, he’s received the message from the organization loud and clear. The dedication he’s been showing since the season ended is proof that he’s doing something about it.

It’s interesting to hear that Penner said he was surprised with the difficulty of the workouts when he was traded to the Kings mid-season last year. Hard work and getting to the best possible condition for the season isn’t something that be new to an NHL player. Terry Murray agreed:

“I don’t like to hear that. I think players should know that they have to work hard. This is a business where that is a given. Hard work is the foundation of what it’s all about to bring your skill out. Most importantly for Dustin though is that he’s talking about it and he’s doing it. And he’s getting himself ready for the training camp here and I want him to be able to step on the ice, do the testing that we do on the first day, and then as we get into the practice start to play at a high level, execute the structure and the system that we want to play, and be able to do it through the 60 minutes. And that’s what it’s all about. Play the game the right way, and that to me is in top physical condition.

“I’m encouraged. We’re pushing him here, there’s no doubt about that. We talked about this right at the end of the year. He understands. This is a big year for him. Coming from Edmonton and coming back to California, playing for the Los Angeles Kings. He knows he has something to prove. He’s got great talent, he’s got great ability. It’s at a time where you have to make that decision to get it done. Time moves on very quickly and if you’re going to let it slide until now you’re 30 years old, you might not be able to catch up. So he’s doing the right thing and I’m excited for him. He’s been hungry and excited and on board with everything we’ve asked him to do.”

We’ll see how things play out when training camps roll around in September. He’s always had the size and skill to be one of the best players in the league—but work ethic has been a question mark. By all accounts, it looks like Dustin Penner will be in the best shape of his career and motivated to silence his critics. For now, he’s doing all he can to make the most of his opportunity next season.