Neal's future is in the Stars

DEREK VAN DIEST -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:19 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- James Neal could have taken his foot off the pedal after signing a contract with the Dallas Stars.

It's been known to happen with other junior players.

However, Neal, 19, decided to make the most of his final year of junior hockey. And he's been the best player for the Plymouth Whalers at the Memorial Cup.

"He's gotten better as the year has gone on," said Whalers head coach Michael Vellucci.

"He signed in December, and he's gotten better and better every game. That's a credit to him. He wants to win and he wants to win as a Whaler."

Neal was selected by the Stars in the second round - 33rd overall - of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft. He had 27 goals and 38 assists in 45 regular-season games with Plymouth this season. He added 13 goals and 12 assists in 20 playoff games, leading the Whalers to their first Ontario Hockey League title.

He was also a member of Canada's gold-medal winning team at the World Junior Championships.

"He's a great player, a power forward that loves to finish his checks and who scores big goals for us," Vellucci said. "He's got a gold medal from the world juniors and a lot our guys look up to him. Our guys feed off him."

At six-foot-two, 185-pounds with good skating ability, Neal has the tools to play at the next level.

However he's not quite done at the junior level, even though Plymouth came within 1:12 of seeing their season come to an end.

A late tying goal then an overtime winner against the Lewiston Maineiacs kept the Whalers in the tournament.

"When you have a contract that just allows you to focus on the task at hand, you can just focus on winning at the junior level and that's what we've been doing all year," said Neal.

"We have a good group of guys in here and no one wants to go home early."


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