Nov 27, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) skates with the puck against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center.The Penguins won 6-5 in a shootout. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Penguins: Why is James Neal not a candidate for Canadian Olympic team?


Many folks in the Pittsburgh sports media have been making the case for Pittsburgh Penguins winger Chris Kunitz to play alongside Sidney Crosby at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Kunitz would be a good choice for Canada. Not only can he boast more than 100 games on Crosby’s wing, he finished last season in the top 10 of the NHL scoring list and is on pace for about 80 points this year. For all the talk of his physical, grinding style, he’s peaking as a skill player, too. According to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun, Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman is giving Kunitz heavy consideration for his first Olympic team at age 34.

That makes perfect sense, but what really confuses me is why James Neal hasn’t been mentioned along with Kunitz and defenseman Kris Letang as candidates to don the maple leaf in February. Neal isn’t the most popular person in the hockey world right now, as he’s serving a five-game suspension for his knee to the head of Boston’s Brad Marchand last Saturday, but his talent is undeniably world-class.

Neal has 10 goals and 10 assists in 16 games this season, a nice rebound after missing more than a month right out of the gate with an abdominal injury. Not coincidentally, his return to the ice preceded Evgeni Malkin‘s recent scoring surge, which has seen the Russian center compile 28 points (5g, 23a) since the start of November.

But while Neal’s presence has helped Malkin find more space on the ice, Neal’s greatest asset is his goal-scoring prowess. Canada has a lot of things on its projected roster, including enough elite-level centers to fill three respectable squads, but with Steven Stamkos hobbled by a broken leg, the defending gold medalists will probably be without a true finisher.

Yes, Anaheim’s Corey Perry plays right wing like Neal and has topped 30 goals three times – with another sure big total sure to come this season. However, he gets many of his markers from in close, jamming pucks behind goalies based primarily on size, strength and a willingness to go to high-traffic areas.

Neal has those traits, too, but no one outside Stamkos can shoot a puck like he can. The 26-year-old lefty can quite literally score from any angle in the offensive zone. His wrister is fast and accurate, and his one-timer is almost automatic, especially from the right circle on the power play. Since the start of the 2011-12 season, Neal has 71 goals in 136 games, a pace that would earn him more than 40 goals in an 82-game season.

There’s still time for Canada to change its mind on Neal. Yzerman said in the summer he was looking for “speed and skill” from its Olympic candidates. Neal was invited to the Canadian orientation camp in August, but he seems to have fallen out of favor for some reason.

Russia has Alex Ovechkin and the United States has Patrick Kane. Canada will be at a disadvantage in the sniping-winger department if it leaves Neal off the plane to Sochi.

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Tags: 2014 Winter Olympics James Neal Pittsburgh Penguins

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