James Neal wasn’t always known for having a wicked shot.
After being drafted by Dallas in 2005, Neal arrived at his first NHL training camp ready to show off the blast that made him a second-round pick.
But he quickly found out he lacked firepower.
“I could see (Mike) Modano, Jason Arnott, Bill Guerin, those guys were just ripping the puck,” Neal said. “I couldn’t score on Marty Turco if I was 2 feet from him, and I was like, ‘All right, I have to work on my shot.’ ”
Neal made several adjustments to his game, including changing the curve on the blade of his stick, and developed into one of the top snipers in the league.
The 30-year-old wing scored more than 20 goals in each of his nine NHL seasons — one of six active NHL players to accomplish the feat — and gives the Golden Knights a proven offensive threat in their inaugural season.
“Throughout my career, I’ve been relied on to score goals,” Neal said. “To come here and be a big part of that, it’s a little added pressure, but the pressure you put on yourself and you want on yourself. It’s a great chance for me here, and I look forward to doing good things.”
Neal pumped in a career-high 40 goals for Pittsburgh during the 2011-12 season while skating on a line with center Evgeni Malkin.
He finished last season with 23 goals and 41 points in 70 games, helping the Predators reach the Stanley Cup finals.
Neal’s 238 career goals ranks 15th in the league since 2008, when he arrived in the NHL, and his 451 career points are more than anyone else on the Knights’ roster.
“He’s a game-changer. He’s a guy who can make you win a game,” said Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who played three-plus seasons in Pittsburgh with Neal. “He’s got such a good shot, good release. Having faced him in practice and games, he’s a guy that can score some big goals for your team, and we’re lucky to have him with us.”
Neal is owed $5 million this season and is in the final year of his contract, which largely explains why he was left unprotected in the expansion draft by Nashville.
Should Neal perform well for the Knights, his contract status and goal-scoring prowess make him a candidate to be dealt to a contending team as the trade deadline approaches.
“(I) just want him to come in and play the way he can play and have a great year,” Knights general manager George McPhee said. “Whether we extend him or someone else does, we’ll see where we are as the season progresses. But we claimed him for a reason. He’s a good player, he can score goals, he plays with an edge.”
The 6-foot-2-inch, 221-pound Neal spent the offseason recovering from surgery on a broken hand suffered in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against Anaheim.
Neal is expected to skate on the Knights’ top line with center Vadim Shipachyov and also feature on the No. 1 power-play unit.
“As you get older and you play in the league a while, you learn to control the things you can control and let the other stuff just work itself out,” Neal said. “I’m definitely not worried about getting traded. I’m not worried about becoming an unrestricted free agent. I’m more excited to be a part of this expansion team.”