BUFFALO, N.Y. – James Neal’s first full year with the Pittsburgh Penguins keeps getting better. And now the high-scoring forward will be around for another six seasons after signing US$30 million contract extension on Sunday.
“With the new commitment the organization’s going to give me, it couldn’t be a better feeling,” Neal said, shortly after signing a deal reached hours before the Penguins prepared to play at Buffalo. “I couldn’t have found a better spot.”
The contract extension comes nearly a year to the day the Penguins acquired Neal in a trade with Dallas that sent defenceman Alex Goligoski to the Stars. And it marks a significant reward for a 24-year-old who is enjoying a career season playing on a prolific line with Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz.
Neal’s career-best 30 goals are second on the team—behind Malkin’s 32—and tied for fourth in the NHL. He also has a career-best 56 points and 13 power-play goals, tied for the league lead.
It’s a big step for the player who had difficulty finding a role with Pittsburgh last year, managing just a goal and five assists in 20 games.
“Obviously, it didn’t work out right away,” said Neal, who was initially acquired to boost an injury-riddled lineup that was playing without Malkin and Sidney Crosby. “But coming into this year, starting over, having a good feeling of things, things falling into place, it’s been a great feeling.”
Neal was in the final season of his contract, and is now locked up through the 2017-18 season.
Neal has been consistent throughout the year. He opened by scoring goals in each of Pittsburgh’s first eight home games, and also had an eight-game point streak, in which Neal had seven goals and four assists from Dec. 8-27.
A first-time all-star selection, he’s failed to get a point only 19 times in 58 games this season, with his longest drought a six-game stretch from Dec. 31-Jan. 11.
Coach Dan Bylsma was confident Neal would find his touch in Pittsburgh.
“Although he didn’t put up points, you saw the way James Neal could play,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “He’s a dangerous player. He can skate. He’s a physical player. And he also obviously can shoot the lights off the puck. He’s done all those things.”
He has 31 goals and 62 points in 72 regular-season games with Pittsburgh.
“I love everything about what goes on here and how we play the game,” Neal said. “I couldn’t see myself anywhere else, and hopefully the success continues.”