Neal showing Stars potential

DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:20 PM ET

DALLAS — For James Neal, the progression has been steady.

Now in his third year with the Dallas Stars, the winger is on pace to set career highs in scoring.

Heading into Tuesday’s contest against the Edmonton Oilers, Neal had 15 goals and 16 assists for 31 points in 43 games.

Last season, the native of Whitby, Ont., finished the season with 55 points.

“Things are going well,” Neal said. “It’s just a matter of keep building off each year. You have to come to the rink and be prepared to work each and every day.”

Playing on the Stars’ top line, Neal is getting more ice time than he’s ever had with the team and so far, he’s making the most of it.

“Playing with Loui (Eriksson) and Richie (Brad Richardson) is great,” he said. “They get you the puck wherever you and we’re trying to build off what we did last year heading into this year. As long as the team’s winning and everything is going well, then guys are happy.”

Selected by the Stars in the second round — 33rd overall — in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Neal, 23, scored 24 goals in his rookie season.

He followed that up with a 27-goal campaign and is on pace to challenge the 30-goal plateau this season.

“He’s probably grown more defensively then he has offensively,” said Stars head coach Marc Crawford. “But because he’s grown defensively, he’s been put in more offensive situations, which is usually the case with young players.

“They need to show the coaching staff that they’re not going to hurt you before they can be given the opportunity to show how much they can help you. James is a guy that we’ve asked to pay more attention to his play in his own end, be more responsible, so we’re not worried about playing him against top lines.”

Neal’s goal-scoring ability is one of the reasons for the Stars success this season.

Having missed the playoffs last year, the Stars are one of the league’s pleasant surprises, leading the way in the tough Pacific Division ahead of Anaheim, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Jose.

“Coming into camp, we had no expectations,” Neal said. “With (Mike) Modano and (Marty) Turco gone, nobody was really talking about us. We just came in with that relaxed feeling and we got off to a great start.

“We knew we had the guys to do it, and we’re showing it each and every night what kind of team we have. As long as we keep doing that every night, we’ll be alright.”

Neal went into the game against the Oilers having scored a goal and adding an assist in a 4-0 win over the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.

The performance earned him the NERF warrior sword the Stars have started handing out to the team’s best player on the night.

“It’s like a team hardhat thing, every win we give it out,” Neal said. “We just started it in the New Year and I’ve already got it twice.”

Playing in the Northwest Division, the Stars still a lot of work to do in order to solidify a playoff berth this season.

Easily the league’s most competitive division, the Stars can’t afford to take many nights off.

“You have to be ready every night,” Neal said. “It’s been like that forever it seems. But we can’t afford to take any team lightly. Going into (Tuesday), we know the Oilers have a lot of young guys coming up and they’re an exciting team to play against, so we have to be ready.”

derek.vandiest@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/DerekVanDiest


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