This has been a summer of change for the Dallas Stars. It has been a newsy summer. We've seen the departure of a legend in Mike Modano. We had the departure of a franchise netminder in Marty Turco. We saw a controversial draft when the Stars took goaltender Jack Campbell. A highly anticipated free agency period came and went, with supposed trades unmade, and the blue line untouched.
Most of all, the sale of the team is going on behind closed doors. The sale of the team that will shape the course of this entire franchise and affect the legacies of every player who calls himself a Dallas Star for what could be 5, 10 or 20 years.
ALL that, and what's the number one question we get from readers? The number one comment we see on Twitter, Facebook, and on other Stars blogs around the web?
"When will the Stars sign James Neal?"
"What is up with James Neal?"
"Is Neal going to get an offer sheet?"
"How much do you think Neal will make?"
"I don't care about any of these other contracts, I only want to know about James Neal."
"I will feel a lot better once James Neal is signed."
Valid concerns, all of them. We've been pondering the very same things and are mildly concerned as training camp approaches, though there's no cause for alarm or panic. It's likely to get done, and we should know something in the next two weeks if all goes well.
But here's the thing; It's been 5 months since we've seen him play a hockey game, and in that time the question has been asked so many times that the weight of it seems artificially blow out of proportion.
Has the constant, perpetual nature of the "James Neal contract" conversation (perhaps exacerbated by us, we're not denying it) overinflated the expectations and perception of him after a long summer of waiting?
After 5 months of Neal contract talk, could people be expecting a little too much?
He has 51 goals and 92 points in only 155 career NHL games, so how can I possibly be saying that the incessant contract talk is growing his status/reputation beyond his already impressive resumé?
To borrow an oft heard NBA phrase, Neal can, at times, be a complete turnstile on defense. I hate to say this, but the evidence is readily available and quite copious. Search this blog, search the DMN blog, search ESPN Dallas, etc. Craig Ludwig was particularly outspoken about it on FSN last year, I recall. Bottom line: James Neal has some room for improvement on the defensive end, particularly on the road.
Last season away from the AAC, Neal was a -15. Opposing coaches, utilizing their "last change" rights, would purposefully send their top units out against the Richards/Eriksson/Neal trio. Was James Neal solely to blame for this? Of course not, but it was Neal who was removed from the line last winter in lieu of Steve Ott, and the plus-minus of all parties involved stabilized.
This post is about the public perception of Neal in the wake of a summers worth of worrying about this contract. Is his defense going to affect the psychology of the Stars fan, causing them to turn on him for being stubborn about his deal?
Likely not, but getting himself moved off the first line because of his D, thus stifling his offensive output again might do the trick.
Between the Ears.
Then there's this issue:
The hit isn't the issue. The aftermath was. We were writing posts at Christmas time, a full month and a half after Neal served the suspension, questioning "Where is James Neal??"
The suspension that stemmed from this play troubled the 22 year old greatly and he struggled to find a balance in his game. The "bull in a china shop" power forward of October was gone, and it took a while before he was able to walk the fine line between aggressive and reckless.
The physical edge to his game was, to our eyes, as big a part of his success as anything else. The suspension came for a hit that people called "a cheap shot", but if you know James Neal, he was just going in banging, looking at the puck. To him it might have seemed he got suspended for simply playing his game, and that was worrisome.
Can Neal find that balance again? Can he regain his edge? Did he toward the end of last year? Another Dallas forward and 20+ goal scorer has been struggling with the same thing for a couple of seasons now...
The Example of Steve Ott
As the trade deadline approached, the Stars fan had similar concerns as they now do for Neal. Are we going to lose Ott? It was a scary prospect and it seemed as though it were going to happen the closer and closer we got to the deadline. People railed against it. Fact and objective opinion making went out the window and the emotions took over. "We need Steve Ott!"
Then Ott was re-signed, and all was right with the world. He's scored ~20 goals in back to back seasons. His intangibles are through the roof. He's Steve Ott!
And then immediately people turned on him. "I can't believe we're paying this much for Steve Ott" was often read after a bad game around here. It's the business of sports, I suppose. When a guys contract is running out, you desperately want him back (if you're like me, you don't like change), but that attention sometimes adversely affects expectations of him when he gets back on the ice.
He's only 23.
(Today, actually. Most of this conversation has taken place about a 22 year old.)
Two impressive goal scoring campaigns assuage my fears of a let down going forward, but his youth is a factor here. A drop in production is a normal occurrence around the league. I used the example of Brian Little a few weeks ago, who followed up a 31 goal season with only 13.
Consistency is what makes the good players good. Neal has already made multiple appearances on a pretty exclusive list over at Copper and Blue: The power forward list. Check it out if you haven't.
I'm not trying to tell you that Neal isn't a good player. He is. We think he has the potential to be a great player some day. What I am saying is that 5 months of fretting over one contract is bound to over inflate a guys reputation. What I might be trying to say is that this process (or lack thereof) might have an adverse effect on the folks who swing by here once every three months to tell us how much _____ sucks.
There are going to be people who think (and unfortunately say and email us), after this summer, "What about this Neal dude? What was the big freaking deal about this guy?"
Don't be one of them.
5 months of a contract talk doesn't mean James Neal is a superstar. It means we love obsessing about this team. Let the 23 year old mature as he will. And go Stars.