Ryan Whitney is gone.

Alex Goligoski is gone.

Evgeni Malkin is hurt.

Pascal Dupuis and Tyler Kennedy have been playing well recently.

So now apparently it falls upon James Neal to be the goat among Penguin fans?

Too many times recently I have seen blog posts, message board threads, tweets, and facebook messages about how many more points Goligoski has than Neal and Matt Niskanen have since arriving in Pittsburgh.

Can anyone say that Niskanen or Neal have been playing badly?

The answer should be “of course not.”

Niskanen has looked rejuvenated in Pittsburgh but that’s an article for another time – this one is about Neal.

So onto the criticisms of Neal:

  • Neal has been invisible most nights.

One drawback of Neal during his time in Dallas was that he was a very streaky player and would disappear from games for long stretches at a time.

I have not seen that in Pittsburgh.

In fact, I would say that Neal has played hard and competed every game and has really got to “his game” after the first few games of adjustment with the Penguins.

So what is Neal’s game?

Strong forecheck, using his size to open up ice for himself, driving the net hard from behind the net and the corner, and using his heavy shot to punish goaltenders.

Can anyone honestly say he has not been playing that game?

  • Neal has not shown up on the scoresheet at all. Goligoski is outscoring him in Dallas.

One of the most quoted statistics is this: “Since the trade, Goligoski has 2G and 7A for 9P while Neal has 1G and 3A for 4P.”

I call that selective statistics. Neal detractors will cite those statistics and say “what’s going on?”

Neal supporters will point out that Neal has 1G and 3A in his past 6 games. Goligoski has 1G 2A in that same time frame. Selective statistics again but it shows that Neal is adjusting.

As Maple Leaf blogger @FelixPotvin pointed out in response to the Neal complaints, “Neal’s shots per game are up from his time in Dallas and he’s a career 13% shot. Saying he’s not playing well is silly.”

Neal is shooting at a 2.9% shooting percentage in Pittsburgh. That would put him 375th in the NHL in shooting percentage over a full season.

Simply put, Neal has been incredibly unlucky in Pittsburgh.

Neal has been the Penguins most dangerous forward on most nights despite going against the other team’s top defensive players. Neal has been playing nearly all of his offensive shifts with Alexei Kovalev and Mark Letestu/Dustin Jeffrey.

In other words, he has had to create the top line’s offense all by himself.

Neal has always played with excellent playmakers during his time in the NHL. Frequent linemates Mike Ribiero, Loui Eriksson, and Brad Richards are some of the best passers in the game.

Now he is accepting passes from Letestu and Jeffrey while trying to figure out what Kovalev is going to do next.

  • The PP Sucks

Yes the Penguins power play sucks but Neal is not getting much chance to help the power play improve.

Neal is barely getting power play time in Pittsburgh which is also hurting his point production.

Here are his PP TOI last 6 games:

Date: TOI Forwards that got more PP TOI
3/21 2:22 Staal, Jeffrey, Kennedy, Kovalev, Kunitz. Rupp (2:07)
3/20 2:34 Staal, Jeffrey, Kennedy, Kovalev, Kunitz.
3/15 4:48 Kovalev, Kunitz. Letestu (4:04).
3/13 5:43 Kennedy, Kovalev, Kunitz.
3/12 3:49 Kovalev, Kunitz, Letestu.
3/08 4:22 Staal, Kennedy, Kovalev, Letestu.

In Conclusion

Neal is being shadowed by the opposition for the first time in his career. In Dallas, the opposition keyed on Eriksson and Richards which left Neal with plenty of free space to work with.

Now, Neal has to scratch and claw for any inch of ice he can get and it has taken him a while to adjust to the opposition’s new defensive strategy against him.

He has 4P in his last 6gms. 22 shots, 9 hits, and is a +2. He is playing outstanding on the forecheck and puck possession game. He is throwing his weight around and starting to settle into the Penguins’ system.

He even scored the game winning shootout goal against Detroit on a laser beam wrist shot.

The people that criticize Neal are the same ones that criticize Chris Kunitz when he does not score.

Neal is a player that contributes to the team night in and night out even if he does not make it onto the score sheet.