How James Neal's Concussion Impacts Pittsburgh Penguins Going Forward

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How James Neal's Concussion Impacts Pittsburgh Penguins Going Forward
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins lost another player to a head injury Monday when the team announced that star winger James Neal would miss at least the next three games with a concussion.

Neal was hit with an elbow from New York Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto during Friday's matchup at Consol Energy Center. He left the game and did not return.

The 25-year-old forward is the latest Penguins star to suffer an injury over the last month.

Player POS Injury
Games Missed
James Neal LW Concussion 0
Sidney Crosby C Jaw (via Penguins)
3
Kris Letang D Toe (via RDS)
5
Paul Martin D Hand (via Penguins)
4

There isn't much information on the severity of Neal's concussion, but the Penguins know how to deal with this type of injury better than any team in the league. Sidney Crosby missed many games over the last two seasons because of concussion-like symptoms, and he will be able to give Neal plenty of advice on how to best recover from this situation.

Since arriving in Pittsburgh with defenseman Matt Niskanen as part of a 2011 trade that sent defenseman Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars, Neal has been one of the most impressive and productive goal scorers in the NHL.

From the start of the 2011-12 season, only Alexander Ovechkin (63) and Steven Stamkos (85) have scored more goals than Neal (58).

Neal does a tremendous job of creating space for himself when he enters the attacking zone with speed, and his great hands and quickness allow him to get enough separation from opposing players so he can unleash one of the most accurate wrist shots in the game. He's a true sniper and by far the most talented goal-scoring winger that Pittsburgh has on its roster.

He is an ideal winger for superstar center Evgeni Malkin because of his speed and ability to take advantage of scoring opportunities. Neal also uses his strength to protect the puck well and draw penalties.

Even though he's best known as a pure goal scorer capable of putting the puck in the net 30-45 times each season, Neal is also a solid defensive player with an underrated two-way game. He ranks ninth on the Penguins in takeaways with 11, eighth among forwards with 56 hits and has also blocked 17 shots.

Without Neal in the lineup on the second line, Pittsburgh loses its second-highest goal scorer, its third-highest power-play scorer (18 points) and leading goal scorer with the man advantage (8). He also ranks fifth among Penguins forwards in time on ice per game (17:34).

Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma is going to need newly acquired wingers Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow to contribute more offensively with Neal unavailable. Both veterans came to Pittsburgh before the trade deadline and now find themselves needing to play a larger role than expected because of the injuries to Neal and Crosby.

Bylsma has a few different line combinations to consider with Neal and Malkin injured. Here's how he put his lines together (per Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) for Tuesday's morning skate before the Penguins take on the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena.

The concern for the Penguins is Iginla and Morrow's ability to produce offensively on a consistent basis. Iginla has one goal and zero assists in four games with Pittsburgh, while Morrow's offensive struggles from Dallas have joined him in Pittsburgh. He has zero goals, one assist and a minus-2 rating in six games with the Penguins.

Which player needs to improve the most with Neal injured?

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Pittsburgh also needs these players to be more aggressive in the attacking zone. Iginla and Morrow have taken 10 and seven shots, respectively, since joining the Penguins. They don't have great speed at this point in their careers, but Morrow is still a valuable net-front presence and someone who will clean up in the crease and score dirty goals, while Iginla is more than capable of replacing Neal as the sniper on the second line.

Bylsma may be hesitant to put too much talent on one line, but having Morrow, Malkin and Iginla play together would be an experiment worth trying.

It may take a few games for a Morrow-Malkin-Iginla line to gel and develop chemistry, but if this trio clicks and has success together, Bylsma should go into the playoffs with this group as his second line. This would force Neal up to the first line with Sidney Crosby when they both return from injury.

Of course, that move would result in Pascal Dupuis or Chris Kunitz being demoted to line three, but it would be foolish not to give Crosby a pure goal scorer on his wing during the playoffs. Kunitz and Dupuis have enjoyed great success with No. 87 this season, but Iginla and Neal should fill the top-six right winger spots.

If the Penguins' forward group is healthy for round one of the postseason, this is how the team's lines should look.

Line LW C RW
1 Kunitz Crosby Neal/Iginla
2 Morrow Malkin Iginla/Neal
3 Dupuis Jokinen Cooke
4 Glass Sutter Kennedy

It's also important for Kunitz and Dupuis to score goals while Neal is out because if they struggle without Crosby, the Penguins become a one-line team.  

Kunitz has just one goal in his last five games, while Dupuis has scored three times in that span. Jussi Jokinen is a creative center with speed and vision, so these two wingers should not be significantly less productive offensively without Crosby between them.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

Another player who must improve when Neal is hurt is Malkin, who despite having 27 points in 26 games is not being the dominant offensive player we expect him to play like on a consistent basis. He has scored only six goals this season after having 12 goals in his first 26 games of last year.

In his last six games, Malkin has attempted more than three shots just once, and in Friday's win over the Rangers, he had zero points and no shots in 23:56 of ice time. That is unacceptable for someone who many consider to be the second-best player on the planet.

Bylsma is also going to need some additional bottom-six scoring while Neal and Crosby are out of the lineup. Guys like Matt Cooke (six goals), Beau Bennett (two goals), Brandon Sutter (nine goals) and Tyler Kennedy (five goals) must be productive offensively to give the Penguins the right amount of scoring depth late in the season and in the playoffs. All championship teams need at least three lines who contribute offensively.

Even though the Penguins have already clinched a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, Bylsma doesn't have the luxury of resting many of his top forwards because they don't have a lot of chemistry right now, and that has to change before the playoffs.

Should Kunitz and Dupuis be Crosby's wingers in the playoffs?

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With nine games remaining before the quest for the Stanley Cup begins, the most important goal for Pittsburgh in the short term is to find line combinations that work and prepare for the possibility that Neal and/or Crosby won't be ready for Game 1 of the postseason.

Credit general manager Ray Shero for assembling some very valuable depth by adding Iginla, Morrow and Jokinen before the deadline, and now it's up to Bylsma to find the right lines and roles for these players because having to switch up line combos during the playoffs could result in disaster for Pittsburgh.

The bottom line is that without Neal, the Penguins need Iginla and Morrow to score goals and impact games with their toughness and veteran leadership. These two veteran wingers will play a top-six role in Neal's absence and be relied on to provide much-needed scoring production from the wings while two of the team's most talented forwards recover from injuries.

Neal's injury makes the Penguins' offense a bit weaker, but Iginla and Morrow have the talent and experience needed to help Pittsburgh score goals against good teams on a consistent basis.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston.

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