A year and a half from now, Ray Shero could have one of the most daunting off seasons of any Genenral Manager in the NHL’s brief post-lockout, salary-capped history. Come summer of 2013, Shero will have Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis – both underrated contributors – going to free agency, and much more importantly, COULD be staring down the pending free agency of Sidney Crosby and/or Jordan Staal.

It is indisputable that each should never be allowed to reach that point. It is unfathomable that Shero will not spend much of the summer of 2012 trying to lay the groundwork, if not complete the architecture of long-term extensions for each. That means the summer of 2012 has a fairly high stress quotient in store for Shero as well. A whole lot of “wooo-sahh” while rubbing the earlobes and fielding calls from Pat Brisson and Paul Krepelka is in his future.

You know what would ease Shero’s stress just a touch?

Getting an extension for restricted free agent-to-be, James Neal, done by the end of the season. Or before the trade deadline. Or better yet, before the All-Star Game.

Neal has at least a point in all but nine Penguins’ games this season, is on pace for a 40-goal season, and against the Islanders Saturday night provided his third 2-goal game of the year. Those are just the raw numbers. They don’t blow you away. But then you look at WHERE Neal is scoring those goals from.

Last February, the day after Neal was traded along with Matt Niskanen to the Pens in exchange for Alex Goligoski, two things became clear: First, Neal’s game would have to evolve if he wanted to take the next step in his career. Brett Hull alluded to it, saying at the time that Neal had to start going to the dirty areas to score, showing a willingness to use his body. At the time, some misinterpreted Hull’s words to mean that Neal had to mold himself into a late 80’s/early 90’s power forward, a la Kevin Stevens or Rick Tocchet. Despite his size though, that will never be Neal’s game, and it’s not what Hull meant. It simply meant Neal had to re-commit to the fearlessness that marked the first 2 1/2 seasons of his career. He’s done so, no longer treading on the outskirts of the offensive zone, waiting for the rare sniper’s chance from the edge of the circles. James Neal has increasingly made plays – not just goals, but some impressive assists and center drives that helped facilitate offensive chances – by utilizing the dirty areas behind the net and more importantly between the dots and down to the top of the crease.

The second thing that was patently clear when Shero dealt for Neal was that the trade was not just for the next few months, as many deadline deals are. It was a trade for the future. A franchise that lacked any coring depth on the wings had the chance to bring an asset in to the fold. And not just an asset, but a 6-foot-3, 200-lb. 24-year old with a year of contractual control and only restricted free agency at the end of that control. It was like convincing a junkyard owner you were just taking some crappy old car off his hands when in reality it was a ’69 ZL1 Camaro. Not flashy so to speak, but big, fast, and strong. All it needed was some polishing and a good tune-up.

Now is the time, if Shero wants to truly realize the full value of what already looks like a steal of a deal, to extend Neal’s contract. There’s no need to expect something insane, like the 267% raise Tyler Kennedy got this past offseason. At least not as long as Shero gets the deal done now. After all, the only reason Kennedy got such a sweet deal was because he actually did hit the brink of free agency. Shero can’t let Neal get that close to the brink. And he can’t allow himself to be distracted this summer from getting another mega-deal done with Crosby and/or Staal.

It’s time for Ray Shero to get a real deal done for James Neal.