Neal and Malkin are Pittsburgh's first 30-goal linemates since 2000-01.
The Sunday morning announcement that the Pittsburgh Penguins and forward James Neal had agreed to terms on a six-year, $30 million contract extension proved once again that GM Ray Shero is capable of pulling off mutually beneficial deals while keeping things in-house.
It's the best deadline transaction no one saw coming.
"I’m just so comfortable in Pittsburgh,” Neal told NHL.com. “And with the commitment that the organization is going to give me, it couldn’t be a better feeling. I couldn’t have found a better spot.
"I don’t think I see myself in anything other than a Penguins uniform."
Neal will be paid $5 million per season over the next six years starting in 2012-13, with a consistent $5 million cap hit in each year of the deal. It includes no performance bonuses and has a no-trade clause set to activate in the 2015-16 season (via CapGeek).
That salary is a relative bargain for the 24-year-old right winger, who has set career highs in 2011-12 with 30 goals, 57 points and 245 shots in just 59 games so far.
"James has proven to be a really good young player for us," Shero said. "He's having a great year and at 24 he's already had a solid career. As we've gotten to know him over the past year, it's obvious that he really fits with our group. It's really difficult to find players like this.”
The greatest key to Neal's success in Pittsburgh isn't just his numbers. As Shero pointed out, it's his ability to play as a Penguin.
"He's got size, an uncanny release, a heavy shot, he goes to the net hard, he can skate,” Shero said. “There's a lot to like even beyond the 30 goals.”
Accepting feeds from Evgeni Malkin probably hasn't hurt.
“When you find chemistry with a guy, you want to play with him for a long time,” Neal said. “[Malkin and I] found some good chemistry from the start of the season and it’s just gotten better.
“I like to shoot the puck. I like to put myself in a spot to score and Geno does the same thing, but can also pass the puck like no other. With his speed and his skill, it’s a good combination.”
Their chemistry is evident in the numbers. Neal and Malkin have combined for 62 goals and 128 points this season, and rank in the top 10 of the NHL in eight major offensive categories.
Add in left winger Chris Kunitz and the trio have been as productive as any line in the NHL this season.
“You don’t want to forget Kuni in there,” Neal said.
Neal's new contract is tied for the longest term Shero has ever awarded to a skater (Brooks Orpik received a six-year, $22.5 million deal in 2008) and second-longest ever behind Marc-Andre Fleury's seven-year deal signed in 2008.
Is it an indication that more long-term deals will be forthcoming? Malkin, Fleury, Jordan Staal, Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang will all be due new contracts within the next three seasons, each with a more proven record of productivity than Neal.
The Neal Deal:
Given the salary cap, Shero won't be able to offer market value to each of his stars awaiting extensions. However, he might be able to keep them all aboard by offering longer terms, like Neal received.
If that's not enough, the promise of playing in Pittsburgh might be incentive enough to help sign them to manageable cap hits.
It certainly helped Neal.
“I couldn’t have imagined that when I got the phone call when I was in my Dallas apartment,” Neal said. “When I got here and saw the way things go, I knew it was a great fit."
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