Neal looking to stay in Dallas this year
With several forwards leaving the Stars this off-season due to free agency, there would appear to be at least one or two roster spots available to be claimed in September’s training camp.

One of the front-runners to fill one of those slots is left winger James Neal.

After learning and progressing during a very solid first professional season at AHL Iowa last year, the 20-year-old Neal appears poised to take the next step. He expects as much from himself.

“I had a good year with Iowa,” noted Neal, who was named the Iowa Stars’ Rookie of the Year in 2007-08 after scoring 18 goals (good for third on the team) and 37 points in 62 games. “It was a good experience for me. I played pro hockey and I think I can make the jump and I think I’m ready, so I’m just going to come into camp with a good attitude and hopefully earn myself a spot.”

In town participating in the Stars’ 2008 Development Camp this week at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco, Neal is determined to make an impression and distinguish himself from some of his Iowa teammates, like Raymond Sawada, Francis Wathier and Perttu Lindgren, each of whom will also be gunning for a job in September.

Stars management will be watching that group in particular to see who emerges.

“They’re guys that have gone through the process and that are knocking at the door, so they’re anxious for the opportunity, they’re anxious to show their work that they put in,” said Stars coach Dave Tippett, who has been observing the development camp but cannot be directly involved, per NHL rules. “Steps like this are great steps that continue to move them along, but the real test for them will come in training camp, when they have to come in and they have to earn a job.”

After young defensemen Matt Niskanen and Mark Fistric skated at last year’s development camp and went on to make valuable contributions to the Stars’ success last season, Neal recognizes that the opportunity is there.

“There’s however many spots and everyone’s competing against each other,” Neal said. “You saw last year with the young D-men, Fistric and Niskanen, and they were here last year, so it’s open and guys got to go for that. It’s been clear that spots are going to be there, so you just keep going.”

“Last year was a perfect example of that, you saw Niskanen and Fistric come in and do these same kind of camps and both ended up playing very valuable minutes for our team,” Tippett pointed out. “Those players see that situation, they see the value of things like this and the value of learning their trade at the highest possible level. They’re close.”

As teammates last year in Iowa, Neal bonded and battled alongside the very guys who are now his primary competition for a job, but that won’t alter his approach at all.

“We’re good friends, it’s good competition and you just play hard against each other and that’s what you’ve got to do,” he said. “You’ve got to play for yourself.”

Sawada, who skated on Neal’s line for the final eight games last year after his college season at Cornell ended, acknowledged the same thing.

“That’s the reality of it, everybody’s competing for a spot,” Sawada said. “I guess you take the friendship away from the ice and just basically leave everything out there and know that it is a business in the end and that, even though you can be friends off the ice, you’re really competing for the same job.”

“They’re all part of the team, they’re all part of the organization, so they’re working together from that aspect,” added Stars’ Director of Player Personnel Dave Taylor, “but they’re working on their individual skills and the chance to move their own game ahead and that’s the whole idea here.”

Neal, the Stars’ second-round choice (33rd overall) in the 2005 Entry Draft, is a budding power forward who can bang bodies and also provide some offense. He revealed that, at 6-foot-2 and 185-pounds, he has tried to pattern his game after another big forward -Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf, who, after scoring 24 goals and 82 points in 2007-08, is not a bad role model.

“I just try to bring a physical aspect, I think I can put the puck in the net and be good around the net, and be physical and play hard every shift,” Neal said.

After somewhat of a slow start last year in Iowa, Neal missed some time with injuries, but came back refreshed - and his game really blossomed over the second half.

“The season went a little bit rough at the start and then I got hurt and I came back real strong,” Neal said. “It was a good rest for me and I worked hard in the gym. (Dallas assistant strength and conditioning coach Manny Hernando) came down and was training me, so I got bigger and stronger, so it was good for me.”

Along the way, he impressed his teammates/competitors with his abilities.

“James Neal is a great player,” Sawada declared. “I had the privilege of playing with him for the last eight games, I think, and just a tremendous player getting the puck in the corners and when he gets open, he’s really dangerous, because he’ll put it right in the back of the net. He’s a great player, who obviously also has a very good opportunity this year with the Stars.”

“Nealer’s a great kid, he battles hard,” Wathier added. “He competes hard, he’s a young kid, he’s got a lot of grit, he can finish around the net. He’s got a great skillset, he finishes checks. He’s going to be a good player for the Dallas organization.”

Also part of the Dallas organization and skating by his side at the development camp this week is James’ younger brother Michael, the Stars’ fifth-round pick (149th overall) in the 2007 Draft. The brothers, two years apart, have never been teammates before and imagine the day they may sit in the same NHL locker room together.

“Yeah, you look down the road and maybe one day we could both be suiting up in a Dallas jersey,” James admitted.

Of course, as the older one, James acknowledged it’s been difficult for him not to ride his brother too hard on the ice and let him be his own player.

“It’s good my brother’s here. You watch him, but you try to let him do his own thing,” James said. “I try to lay off him as much as I can. We compete all the time at home, so this is kind of a week we can compete with other guys. You let him go. But he’s doing well, and it’s nice to see him out there with me.”

While Michael will probably need at least a couple more years of maturing and development before we see him in Dallas, James Neal is on the cusp of the NHL. After a highly successful junior career with Plymouth of the OHL, where he contributed 13 goals and 25 points in 20 playoff games on the way to a league championship, and then the Memorial Cup as the overall Canadian Major Junior champions in 2006-07, Neal has gotten his first year of pro hockey under his belt.

Making that adjustment has helped better equip him to arrive here in September with the clear objective of taking over a slot on the Stars’ roster. And if he doesn’t make the club out of camp, he will likely be one of the first call-ups during the season.

“I’m trying to get a spot on the team, so I just got to come in here with a good attitude and keep things simple and do what I got to do,” Neal said. “I’m just looking forward to being here, and obviously going to main camp in September.”

Tippett thinks the experience of spending the year in the AHL made a big difference for him.

“Last year, he was coming to camp determined to play on our team,” Tippett said, “and at the end of the year, I had a conversation with him. He said, ‘Boy, I wasn’t even close to being ready.’ There’s a lot of preparation that has to go into place. Everybody has their dreams and you’re right there and you’re getting there, but that last step is a big step. It’s funny how players don’t recognize it until after, that all those steps were valuable to the process.”

The next step comes in about two months and Neal vows to be ready for it.

“There’s lots of guys, they’ll be all here and battling for a spot,” Neal said, “so you got to bring your ‘A game,’ I guess, and show them what you got, stay focused on what you want to do and earn yourself a spot.”