Radio-Canada Sports - Tuesday Dec. 3, 2013 16:46 ET

James Neal catches fire, enters Team Canada conversation

Pittsburgh Penguins forward on hot seat in Week 9 of Olympic hockey power rankings

Pittsburgh forward James Neal could be used as a power-play specialist. (Jim McIsaac/Getty)

In Week 9 of our Olympic hockey power rankings, Radio-Canada’s Guillaume Lefrançois ranks 30 Canadian skaters according to their performance over the past seven days. Each week, Lefrançois and Tim Wharnsby of CBC Sports also debate one player in greater detail.

This week the discussion centres around James Neal of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

GL: If James Neal wanted to catch Team Canada’s attention, he has done everything in his power to do so. Six multipoint games in an 11-day span will do just that.

After missing 15 of the Penguins’ first 16 games and – consequently – being left out of Team Canada’s picture, Neal, who is from Whitby, Ont., came back strong and reminded everyone of why he got to spend four days in Calgary last August. In the last two seasons, only one Canadian forward – namely, Steven Stamkos – topped his 61 goals.

Besides Corey Perry, high-scoring natural wingers just don’t grow on trees in Canada. Which makes the big 26-year old an interesting candidate for the national team.

TW: Not only were Steve Yzerman and his Canadian Olympic management team pleased to hear the news that the roster deadlines have been pushed back a week until early January, so was Neal. As Guillaume has mentioned, Neal missed several weeks with an unspecified upper-body injury.

He has caught fire and his return certainly has lifted the game of his centre and Penguins teammate Evgeni Malkin. But we need to see more of the left-shooting forward who primarily plays on the right side.

Time is on his side with the deadline shift. But the extra time also will give Yzerman and Co. a better feel of the availability of Steven Stamkos from his broken leg and whether Claude Giroux can continue to show better times are in front of him. Stamkos and Giroux were two centremen expected to shift to the right side for the Canadian Olympic team.

GL: Neal could indeed be a victim of the talent on the right side – let’s not forget a guy named Corey Perry. One could also worry about how a big power forward like him fares on the bigger ice surface. Besides six games during the 2011 world championship, he hasn’t had much international experience over the last few years.

However, it seems to me like Team Canada could use his goal-scoring abilities, especially on the power play. Neal led the NHL two years ago with 18 power-play tallies, and he finished a respectable 3rd last year despite playing only 40 out of the 48 games.

In the role of a specialist, he could get some playing time with his Pittsburgh teammate Sidney Crosby on the man advantage. 

1. Sidney Crosby

Key Stat: A productive week: 1 goal and 5 assists in 6 games
Guillaume says: He is accumulating points and continues to work well with Chris Kunitz.
Previous ranking: 1
2. Jonathan Toews

Key stat: 2 points in 4 games
Guillaume says: The captain has lead his team into 6 consecutive wins on the road, an impressive record.
Previous ranking: 2
  3. Corey Perry

Key stat: 2 goals and 2 assists in 3 games, but a -5 rating due to the 2 losses for the Ducks
Guillaume says: 1st amongst Canadian players with 15 goals.
Previous ranking: 3
  4. John Tavares

Key stat: 3 points in 3 games, but 3 losses
Guillaume says: He remains productive despite the Islanders' sluggishness.
Previous ranking: 4
  5. Ryan Getzlaf

Key stat: Played for almost 27 min against the Sharks on Saturday
Guillaume says: He is in the middle of a 10-game point streak (7G, 8A).
Previous ranking: 5
6. Logan Couture

Key stat: With 4 points, he maintains his pace of 1 point per game
Guillaume says: Can we assume that his spot is guaranteed?
Previous ranking: 7
7. Patrice Bergeron

Key stat: Has finally put an end to his 6-game pointless streak
Guillaume says: With the role he would have in Sochi, his offensive production isn't that important.
Previous ranking: 6
8. Claude Giroux

Key stat: Another 3 points to make us forget about his difficult start of season
Guillaume says: The Flyers have won 8 out of 11 games since their captain scored his first goal of the season.
Previous ranking: 10
9. Eric Staal

Key stat: At least 1 point in 8 out of his last 9 games
Guillaume says: Another centre who risks having to play wing if he gets a spot.
Previous ranking: 8
10. Matt Duchene

Key stat: Held pointless in 3 games since his comeback
Guillaume says: His excellent start of the season was ruined by an upper body injury.
Previous ranking: 9
11. Rick Nash

Key stat: 3 consecutive games with 1 goal
Guillaume says: 6 points in 7 games since his comeback. He seems to have found his rhythm again.
Previous ranking: 19
12. Martin St. Louis

Key stat: 3 points on Monday, before being held pointless in the 2 other games
Guillaume says: 8 points in 9 games since Steven Stamkos's fracture. He is holding on.
Previous ranking: 11
13. Tyler Seguin

Key stat: No points in 2 games, and he missed Sunday's game because of concussion symptoms
Guillaume says: The length of his absence remains unknown, just like in any other concussion situation.
Previous ranking: 12
14. Mike Richards

Key stat: 1 goal and 1 assist in 3 games, on a team that doesn't score much
Guillaume says: He plays almost 2 minutes short-handed per game. Could he have a role as a specialist?
Previous ranking: 13
15. Patrick Sharp

Key stat: 2 goals and 17 shots in 4 games
Guillaume says: If he keeps this pace going, he will have his 4th 30-goal season.
Previous ranking: 14
  16. Joe Thornton

Key stat: 3 points on Friday against the Blues, 5 points in total for the week
Guillaume says: 29 points in 26 games, he's well on his way to his first season with more than 1 point per game since 2009-2010.
Previous ranking: 16
17. Chris Kunitz

Key stat: 4 games, 3 goals, 3 assists
Guillaume says: Here we are again, talking about him as a possible candidate.
Previous ranking: N/A
18. James Neal

Key stat: With 7 points in 4 games, he deserves a spot among the stars of the week
Guillaume says: With Evgeni Malkin, he is part of the pair of the hour in the NHL.
Previous ranking: N/A
19. Jason Spezza

Key stat: 2 assists in 3 games
Guillaume says: The Senators' captain is looking for himself, just like his team.
Previous ranking: 18
  20. Steven Stamkos

Key stat: Suffered a broken right tibia on Nov. 11 against Boston
Tim says: He already walks without crutches, which is encouraging for Team Canada.
Previous ranking: 20
  1. Duncan Keith

Key Stat: With 6 assists in 4 games, he continues his streak of scoring a point in 7 consecutive games
Guillaume says: He has propelled himself to 2nd among NHL defencemen with 24 points.
Previous ranking: 1
  2. Drew Doughty

Key stat: 1 goal in 3 games
Guillaume says: With all the close games played by the Kings, he regularly plays more than 25 min per game.
Previous ranking: 2
3. Shea Weber

Key stat: Suffered an eye injury last Thursday
Guillaume says: Canadian management is crossing their fingers that it won't be anything serious.
Previous ranking: 2
  4. Alex Pietrangelo

Key stat: His opponents only scored twice during the 73 min that he was on the ice, and 1 of those 2 goals was into an empty net
Guillaume says: Held pointless in 6 out of 7 games, but the Blues keep on winning.
Previous ranking: 4
  5. Marc-Edouard Vlasic

Key stat: Only 1 point, but a nice rating of +3
Guillaume says: The lack of depth from the left side among Canadian players is an advantage.
Previous ranking: 5
  6. P.K. Subban

Key stat: 3 more points, and a ton of energy
Guillaume says: Mike Babcock has been clear: he is looking for good defencemen for all three zones. But Subban's stats in terms of offence can only benefit him.
Previous ranking: 6
  7. Jay Bouwmeester

Key stat: 2 more assists in 3 games
Guillaume says: He has discreetly ascended to 3rd among Canadian defencemen, thanks to his 19 points.
Previous ranking: 7
  8. Brent Seabrook

Key stat: 2 assists only in his case, but a nice +5 rating
Guillaume says: Seabrook and Keith are a combined +28, which makes them one of the best pairs within the NHL
Previous ranking: 8
  9. Kristopher Letang

Key stat: He's on an offensive streak with 5 points in the last 3 games
Guillaume says: Babcock's message to Subban could be just as easily applied to Letang.
Previous ranking: 9
  10. Dan Boyle

Key stat: Only 1 point in his past 7 games
Guillaume says: If Subban and Letang can't win Canadian management's confidence, Boyle could be the one who gains.
Previous ranking: 10

Knocked off the list this week: Taylor Hall and Jamie Benn

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