Colin Dunlap: James Neal Won’t Get Look He Deserves
This isn’t to say Penguins winger James Neal should be some shoo-in to make the Team Canada roster for the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
No, not in the least.
You know what this is, however? Here’s your formal request for the brass — General Manager Steve Yzerman, coach Mike Babcock and their associates — to take a heavy look into precisely what a guy like Neal could do to help your team win gold in a land far, far away.
Or, at least a deep look as to how he compares to New York Rangers winger Rick Nash.
The safe bet is that when the roster is unveiled on Tuesday morning, Neal won’t be on it, as the commanders-in-chief at Team Canada would seemingly much rather make selections as if they were picking hockey aristocrats and not a practical application of who is playing best right now.
That’s why, just watch, you will see Nash selected for Team Canada over Neal. Just watch — and it will be a downright shame.
If Nash makes it and Neal doesn’t, it will be an outright crime.
If both make it, it would be absolutely stunning.
If Neal makes it and Nash doesn’t, it shows that Team Canada’s leaders might be coming to their senses.
If neither makes it, certainly, it is a decision that almost all of us should be able to live with.
However, if Nash makes Team Canada and Neal doesn’t, it will illustrate a nonsensical, arbitrary selection process based on what the selectors feel is someone’s place in hockey versus how a player is actually performing.
To wit, Neal — who can play either wing and is a pure scorer — has pushed through injuries and a suspension this season to score 16 goals and notch 18 assists in 24 games. His eight power play goals are fourth in the NHL.
In this what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, Neal has done seemingly everything as of late, as it is high time to impress the Team Canada selection committee. He has six goals in his past five games, including a hat trick at Columbus on Dec. 29 and a snipe on the short side behind Winnipeg goaltender Al Montoya on Sunday that was masterful. In the past 10 games he’s played, Neal has also picked up 10 assists.
Go ahead and compare that with the recent form of Nash — a former first overall pick who has represented Team Canada extensively, including at the 2006 and 2010 Olympics. After missing 17 games early this season, Nash has bounced back semi-effectively and accumulated 16 points (7 goals, 9 assists) in 26 games. In 11 games between Dec. 12 and Saturday however, Nash scored just once.
Quite simply, at this juncture, Neal is playing better than Nash.
“I try to do everything I can to make that team,” Neal said of Team Canada. “We’ll see what happens Tuesday. Right now I’ll just focus on getting better here (with the Penguins).
“It would be a huge honor, to play for your county and represent them. To put that Team Canada jersey on is a special thing. Having represented them in the past at World Juniors and World Championships, it means a lot and it’s something that you can treasure for the rest of your life.”
Again, don’t bet on it. Sadly as it is, watch a guy like Nash — based solely on reputation — earn a spot and Neal earn nothing more than a vacation while the NHL goes on Olympic hiatus.
One guy who is well-aware of what Neal has been doing is Team USA, and Penguins coach, Dan Bylsma. While he stopped short of openly campaigning for Neal in his postgame press conference on Sunday after beating Winnipeg, Bylsma heaped lots of praise.
“James’ play, since coming back from being out of the lineup, has been as much as he could possibly do,” Bylsma said. “He’s doing an awful lot to show what he can do. When I see him shoot the puck like he is right now, and get goals like he is, I’m not so sure I want to talk him up too much.”
Because Bylsma wouldn’t want to potentially face a pure goal-scorer — on that bigger sheet of ice — in the Olympics. Bylsma knows just how good Neal could be for Team Canada in Sochi.
The crazy part? Team Canada will probably never find out.
Colin Dunlap is a featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his bio here.