James Neal conceded he still loves feeling a plane’s wheels hit the ground in Las Vegas, a place that always will be special to him.
The former Golden Knight loves his game these days, too. Neal, one of the Knights’ leaders during their magical inaugural season, is experiencing a resurgence in his first year with the Edmonton Oilers.
He struggled last season after signing a five-year contract with the Calgary Flames. Now he’s back to his old self, and he and the rest of the Pacific Division-leading Oilers (14-7-3) should present a stiff test for the Knights (11-9-4) at 7 p.m. Saturday at T-Mobile Arena.
“I think just having a great summer and coming in with a different mindset (helped),” said Neal, who has 16 points (13 goals, three assists). “(So did) playing with the guys I’ve been playing with. Great players. I’ve been able to find the back of the net early.”
Neal, 32, could be forgiven for having a somber mindset this past offseason. The right wing, who had at least 20 goals in each of his previous 10 seasons, scored seven in 63 games with Calgary. He received the lowest average ice time (14:53) of his career, and the Flames clearly weren’t happy with him or his $28.75 million contract.
So Neal dedicated the summer to living up to that price tag. He had his first full offseason in three years after playing in the 2017 and 2018 Stanley Cup Finals with the Nashville Predators and the Knights, respectively, and took advantage.
“He had a great summer working out,” said Knights coach Gerard Gallant, who ran into Neal on Canada’s Prince Edward Island during the offseason. “He said he was working his tail off.”
Neal also was working hard because he was traded to the Oilers on July 19 for physical left wing Milan Lucic. Suddenly, he had to prove himself to a fourth team in four years. He’s done that, earning minutes on the second line and the first power-play unit.
The latter gives him the chance to work with superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, the NHL’s two leading scorers with 44 points apiece.
“It’s unbelievable,” Neal said. “They’re so good. Their ability to move pucks and draw guys to them and find the open man is the best in the league. They’re special players. When they get going, there’s no one that can stop them.”
That open man often is Neal. McDavid and Draisaitl draw so much attention when they have the puck that Neal is available to head to the net or find a spot from which he can fire a wrist shot.
As a result, eight of his goals have come on the power play. McDavid has an assist on seven of them and Draisaitl on three. The three have helped produce the NHL’s top-ranked power play at 31.4 percent.
“You try to get them the puck as much as possible and get free,” Neal said. “They do a great job of finding guys.”
Neal’s success has caught the attention of his former Knights teammates, who are happy for their ex-assistant captain. The Neal who played at T-Mobile Arena last season was struggling. The one who returns Saturday is back to his old tricks.
“I’ll be super happy to see Jimmy Neal tomorrow,” left wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “Obviously, he’s doing good. That’s what we always wish when (players) go somewhere else. We want them to do good, just not against us.”
Who: Oilers at Golden Knights
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)
Line: Knights -170; total 6½ u-115
Notable former Knights
James Neal, RW, Oilers
Has 16 points (13 goals, three assists) in his first season in Edmonton. He had 19 points in Calgary last season.
David Perron, RW, Blues
The leading scorer for the reigning Stanley Cup champions with 21 points (10 goals, 11 assists).
Erik Haula, C, Hurricanes
Has 11 points (eight goals, three assists), but injuries have limited him to 16 games. He’s out indefinitely with a knee injury.
Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, C, Avalanche
Has eight points (four goals, four assists). He had 15 last season.
Colin Miller, D, Sabres
The offensive-minded defenseman has struggled with just four assists. He’s been scratched in four of the Sabres’ last five games.
Ryan Carpenter, LW, Blackhawks
Has six assists and is a lineup regular as a fourth-line player.
Tomas Tatar, LW, Canadiens
The Canadiens’ leading scorer with 20 points (seven goals, 13 assists).
Nick Suzuki, C, Canadiens
The rookie has 10 points (six goals, four assists).
Erik Brannstrom, D, Senators
Unexceptional rookie season with two assists and a minus-4 plus-minus.