Jan 23, 2014; Uniondale, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) and New York Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald (47) chase the puck during the third period of a game at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. The Penguins defeated the Islanders 6-4. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Could Pittsburgh Penguins Winger James Neal Still Play In The Winter Olympics?

As described Tuesday by National Post columnist Bruce Arthur, Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos is hard at work rehabbing the broken right tibia he suffered Nov. 11, in hopes of being able to compete for Team Canada at next month’s Winter Olympics.

The 23-year-old Stamkos, certainly one of the top goal scorers in the game today, has another two weeks – give or take – to make the call on whether he’s ready to take the ice in a game. If Stamkos hopes to play for the Lightning before the Olympic break, he has until Feb. 8 to prepare.

Arthur writes that Stamkos looked to be at half speed in Tuesday’s workout, one day after he stayed off the ice due to soreness in his lower right leg. In other words, it’s no guarantee No. 91 will be in uniform in Sochi, try as he might to rush the recovery process.

Some, including Arthur, have speculated that Lightning teammate Martin St. Louis could take Stamkos’ roster spot if necessary. That would allow Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman, who also holds the same position with Tampa Bay, to “right a wrong” when he passed over the 38-year-old St. Louis in the initial team selection.

All respect to St. Louis, last year’s Art Ross Trophy winner and owner of 52 points in 53 games this season, but Pittsburgh Penguins winger James Neal would be more of a true replacement for Stamkos if the Lightning center is unable to play.

I mentioned Stamkos’ status as perhaps the premier gunner in hockey; his 199 regular-season goals over the past five seasons puts him at .64 goals per game, the best scoring rate in the NHL during that span. Washington’s Alex Ovechkin is second at .58.

Neal, 26, can’t quite match that production, as he has .41 goals per game over the past five years, but he has turned it up to .51 since 2011-12, his first full season with the Penguins. If Canada, which has an abundance of centers on its 25-man roster, wants to keep a potent sniper on the ice sans Stamkos, Neal would be the best option of the players available.

Stamkos will likely go down to the wire before making a decision, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Neal makes the trip to Russia as a contingency plan. With left winger Chris Kunitz already joining center Sidney Crosby on the Canadian team, maybe Neal could play the right flank on an all-Pittsburgh trio.

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Tags: James Neal Martin St. Louis Pittsburgh Penguins Steven Stamkos

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