Neal makes his points

DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

James Neal has been given every chance to succeed in his second NHL season.

The Dallas Stars sophomore winger is skating on the team's top line with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson and is making the most of the opportunity.

Heading into Friday's game against the Edmonton Oilers, Neal, 22, had already matched the point total of his rookie season.

"James had a great start to the season, he really put himself up at the forefront," said Stars head coach Marc Crawford.

GOOD COMBINATION

"He's a big, powerful guy that has a great set of hands. He's still learning the game, still learning to compete on a nightly basis. He's got the potential to be a top-line player, a top-three player, because he has hands, because he has speed and he has size."

Selected by the Stars in the second round -- 33rd overall -- in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Neal has progressed faster than originally expected.

He collected 37 points in his first year of pro hockey with the Iowa Stars, then matched that total last year in the NHL. He has over 30 games left this year to improve on those numbers.

"Any time you go through your first year, you see what goes on and the little things that it takes to be a pro and what goes on here," Neal said. "I was able to come in and play good minutes and be able to jump in last season. We had a lot of injuries last year with some key players being out, so it gave me an opportunity to play.

"Coming in to your second year, you never want to think about that sophomore slump and struggle in your second year. Things aren't going to be easier, they're going to be harder than they were the first time around."

Many players struggle in their second season, unable to adjust to the added expectations and greater attention from opponents.

Neal has managed to rise above it.

"You have to come in with confidence, have no doubt, have a good summer of training and come in strong," he said. "Sometimes you think things are going to be easier in your second year, but it's not the way it goes.

"I was able to come in with that confidence and was able to get off to a good start, which always helps, and I was able to take it from there."

Traditionally one of the top teams in the Western Conference, the Stars are currently going through a transition phase.

The days of relying heavily on Mike Modano and Marty Turco are coming to an end. Neal represents the future of the team and as such is getting an opportunity to play on the top line with the team's two best offensive players.

"They're two great players and I've been able to play with them from the start," Neal said. "To come in and get a chance to play with them has been a big help."

STRUGGLES

It's been a tale of two teams in Dallas this season.

The club has only lost five games in regulation at home all year, but were winless in 10 heading into their game against the Oilers.

"We've been struggling on the road. It's just the little things and that consistency on the road," Neal said. "It's everything from turnovers to bad bounces to not paying attention to details. It's not one thing you can blame, it's a combination of things. Everyone has to pick up the slack and do the right thing to turn this around."

DEREK.VANDIEST@SUNMEDIA.CA


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