Is Pittsburgh Penguins Winger James Neal an Elite Goal Scorer?

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Is Pittsburgh Penguins Winger James Neal an Elite Goal Scorer?
Francois Lacasse/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins roster one of the NHL's top goal-scoring threats, and his name isn't Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. It's James Neal.

While Crosby and Malkin are two of the best players in the world at any given time, they just don't light the lamp with the same regularity as the Ontario native. He's been limited to 22 games this season due to injuries and a suspension, but his scoring pace is every bit as good as the players who sit ahead of him in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

2013-14 Goals Per Game Leaders
Player GP G GPG
Steven Stamkos 17 14 0.82
Alex Ovechkin 38 30 0.79
Alexander Steen 35 24 0.69
James Neal 22 14 0.64
Jeff Skinner 29 16 0.55
Patrick Kane 42 23 0.55
Tyler Seguin 37 20 0.54
Max Pacioretty 32 17 0.53
Sidney Crosby 42 22 0.52
Patrick Sharp 42 22 0.52

http://www.sportingcharts.com/nhl/stats/player-goals-per-game-leaders/2013/

Steven Stamkos was potting goals so often before his gruesome leg injury that he's still on track for a 50-goal season despite not having played since November 11. Alex Ovechkin scores at a historically high rate, and he possesses the fifth-best goals-per-game ratio ever.

Alexander Steen has been among the biggest surprises so far this year, but he's scoring at an unsustainable shooting percentage that is twice as high as his career average, so it seems safe to call his white-hot start a flash in the pan.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

And then there's Neal, sitting pretty in fourth this season. Does that make him one of the NHL's top-10 goal scorers? Does that put him in the same category as guys like Patrick Kane, Ovechkin and Stamkos? Absolutely, and not just because of what he's done so far in 2013-14.

Perhaps you'd want to make an argument that his GPG number is higher than it should be because he's missed so many games, though. Maybe you want more proof that Neal is indeed one of the league's top snipers.

After all (as Steen has showed us this season) just about anyone is capable of going on 20-game hot streaks before cooling off—sometimes for good.

This GPG trend is hardly unique to this campaign, though. Neal posted similar numbers during the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign.

2012-13 Goals Per Game Leaders
Player GP G GPG
Alex Chiasson 7 6 0.86
Joffrey Lupul 16 11 0.69
Alex Ovechkin 48 32 0.67
Steven Stamkos 48 29 0.60
John Tavares 48 28 0.58
Jeff Carter 48 26 0.54
Thomas Vanek 38 20 0.53
James Neal 40 21 0.53
Jonathan Toews 47 23 0.49
Patrick Kane 47 23 0.49

http://www.sportingcharts.com/nhl/stats/player-goals-per-game-leaders/2012/

There's Neal again, among the top 10 when it comes to goals scored per game. It's worth noting here that only four to 2013's top 10 are among this season's top 10: Ovechkin, Stamkos, Kane and Neal. Overall the Penguin has 35 goals in his last 62 games, placing him among the league's elite over the last year or so.

If a 62-game sample size is too small for you, consider this: If you toss out Neal's adjustment period in 2011 when he scored a single goal in 20 games, Neal has 75 goals across 142 games played with Pittsburgh. That's good for a 0.52 GPG ratio, which isn't just outstanding in the short term. If Neal can maintain that average, it'd place him among history's elite scorers.

A 0.52 average would make Neal one of the top-20 most effective scorers of all time. It'd mean that he'd be a better sniper than Ilya Kovalchuk, Crosby, Malkin, Jaromir Jagr or Teemu Selanne, according to QuantHockey.com.

Neal isn't only one of the best shooters of our current generation, but when his career is over, he could be viewed as one of the top snipers ever.

Yet that reputation doesn't seem to follow the 26-year-old. You'll rarely hear him mentioned as a guy the opposition must key on to down the Penguins in a playoff series, but he's clearly the best shooting forward that the team has.

James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The reason that Neal isn't widely considered a top-end scorer is simple: He misses way too much time—whether it be due to suspensions or injuries. Over the last two seasons, he's missed 28 of a possible 90 contests. The NHL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and Neal has missed more than 30 percent of Pittsburgh's games over the last two seasons.

For Neal to get his recognition as a finisher along the same lines as Kane, Ovechkin and Stamkos, he simply has to spend less time in the press box. He has to stay healthy and keep his temper in check. Neal has been suspended by the league on several occasions, most recently for recklessly kneeing Brad Marchand in the head while he was down on the ice.

Is James Neal one of the NHL's top-five scorers?

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A disciplined and healthy Neal is capable of taking on the league's heavyweights for the Rocket Richard. He's not particularly streaky and isn't a guy who typically goes through hot-and-cold spells. His shooting percentage is also very sustainable, given his age and skill set.

This year, he's scoring on 16.3 percent of his shots. That's in line with the 15.4 he was shooting at last season. When Neal scored 41 goals in 2011-12, he was shooting at a 12.2 percent clip, so if anything, he's in a position to continue to improve his numbers.

The next time you're discussing the NHL's top scorers, feel free to shower all the attention on the likes of Stamkos and Ovechkin, but don't forget to toss Neal into the discussion as well. It's only a matter of time before he truly takes off and cements his status as one of the league's premier snipers.

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