James Neal’s hard-nosed personality could aid Golden Knights

CALGARY — Jimmy is a unique sort of fellow.

Jimmy’s new team embarrassed his old one Monday night.

James Neal was always supposed to be a rental for the Golden Knights last season, a veteran scorer selected in the expansion draft who was about to enter unrestricted free agent status and who could be used to land draft picks or prospects (or both) from a playoff contender at the trade deadline.

Nobody imagined Neal would last the entire year with Vegas.

Then history happened.

That seems eons ago, because I’m pretty sure Calgary just scored again.

The Knights faced Neal for the first time since he departed in the offseason and you can chalk it up to one of the worst performances from Vegas since it arrived to the NHL last year, a 7-2 loss to the Flames before an announced crowd of 17,635 at Scotiabank Saddledome.

Malcolm Subban was in goal for Vegas and might have been his team’s best player. It was that kind of terrible night, 5-0 after one period and 7-0 after two.

Subban was good enough that it wasn’t 14-0 at that point.

“They didn’t show up,” Knights coach Gerard Gallant said of his team. “It’s unacceptable.”

Neal didn’t register a point — he’s still one shy of 500 for his career — continuing what has been a slow start to his 11th NHL season. He’s a third-liner with three goals and an assist in 21 games, playing to a minus-4 rating and was recently benched for the third period against the Sharks.

But while he made a significant impact on the Vegas run to a Stanley Cup Final, his was a leadership style that wasn’t immediately embraced.

Jimmy, well, took some getting used to.

“Jimmy and I, we didn’t really see eye-to-eye for the first month,” said Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt. “He’s just a guy who was on everybody, which was actually good because we needed that. Once you understand what he’s about and you kill him with kindness, all of a sudden, you see him break down and have some fun. I still talk to Jimmy. I love him. He’s an awesome guy.

“Sometimes, he can get under your skin. But teams need that. If everyone had the same personality as me, I don’t think that would work. You need that edge in your room. And he did that for us.”

If everybody had the same personality as Schmidt, I’m guessing the team would spend most days singing Christmas carols and watching “Elf,” and forget to practice.

Neal signed a five-year deal with the Flames for $28.75 million, terms that Vegas general manager George McPhee wasn’t going to approach for a 31-year old forward who has likely seen his best NHL days.

But as poorly as the Knights have played at points this season — they’re 9-12-1 and followed a terrific effort in winning at Edmonton on Sunday with a brutal one here — it’s not crazy to think more than just a little is missing in the room.

And it could be a guy like Neal.

Wanted to stay

He wanted things to work. He wanted to remain in Las Vegas, and whether there is any teeth to the idea/rumors/whispers McPhee would consider making a move to bring him back, the sense his sort of demanding persona would perhaps ignite a fire that hasn’t been there is at least somewhat intriguing.

Because, I’m telling you, it’s needed right now.

“(Last season) was the most fun I’ve ever had playing hockey,” Neal said. “A special, special year. I will never forget that team. For sure, I wanted to stay. It was really hard. Business is business, but it was a tough process. You wish things would have worked out. I’m not bitter at all. It’s just tough. It happens to a lot of players.

“Calgary was a team that wanted me, pushed for me. It’s important to feel wanted and you’re getting the right value for where you’re going to go. You work your whole life for that moment.

“But that was a tough day when you realize it’s not going to happen (with Vegas). You wanted to stay there and continue on. … Then you see what happens when things get broken up.”

Did you catch that?

Jimmy just meant to make a point.

It’s a valid one.

Calgary 7, Vegas 2. This stuff has happened too often this early in a season.

Maybe the Knights need someone (Jimmy?) to give them a swift kick in the rear.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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