More than sixty games into the season, Dallas Stars rookie James Neal has set a new standard for rookies for that club. The 6-2, 210-pound left wing recently passed former Star Jussi Jokinen for the record for goals scored by a Stars’ rookie, becoming the first Stars’ rookie since 1993 to score at least 20 goals in a season.
The Whitby, Ontario native has averaged 15:49 minutes of ice time per game and has made the most of every second, ranking first on the team in power play goals (7), second in goals (21) and fifth in points (32). Not surprisingly, with numbers like these Neal has been right at the top of the pack in the rookie scoring race, ranking second in goals and sixth in points (32). Neal’s contributions have been especially valuable as the Stars are one of seven teams within four points of each other all battling for the final three playoff spots.
According to Stars’ netminder Marty Turco, the emergence of young players like Neal and Loui Eriksson is crucial, especially at this point of the year.
“It’s vital to the pulse of our team with our injuries [and] in the era of the salary cap, the young guys are gonna be an important factor on your team”, said Turco. “Last year, [we had a] corner group of young defensemen that we relied heavily upon who produced for us all season and into the playoffs. They’ve continued to grow and this year you see the emergence of some young wingers on our club and we’re the beneficiaries of that, which is quite huge. And at this point of the season you’re not thinking about rookies or the age of guys; it’s all about bonding together as one group almost like age is a timeless thing and we’re gonna need everybody no matter how many years you’ve got in the league.”
And while Neal can score, he doesn’t shy away from physical play, ranking third on the team in hits with 158. Not surprisingly, with numbers like these there is a buzz that Neal could be a favorite for the Calder Trophy. Hockey’s Future caught up with the Dallas Stars‘ top rookie and got his thoughts on the Calder race and his team’s playoff chances.
Q: What does the team need to do to make the playoffs with things so tight?
A: Just be consistent, you know you can’t let games slip away like we did last night in LA. Points are so hard to come by and you got to get every little push and be consistent here and finish things off, and tonight was a good start.
Q: What’s it been like to be a rookie in the NHL and to be such a big part of the team as you guys battle for a playoff spot?
A: It’s been nice to be able to come in and play with such good players and get a good opportunity. I never thought it would turn out like this or that it would happen this way and you just go with it. It’s been great. Playing with Modano, playing with a guy like that it helps you so much and things just started off good and I can’t say enough. Things have been rolling ever since and hopefully I can keep things going here and make a name for myself going into next year.
Q: Did you expect this much success going into this year?
A: No, I just take it in stride. I never expected I’d be in this position. But you know what? It’s been good and hopefully I can keep it going.
Q: Was the adjustment to the NHL difficult with just one year of pro hockey under your belt?
A: I kind of got what I needed last year [in the AHL]. I wasn’t ready to step into the league right out of junior so I did what I had to do in the American League last year and it gave me confidence and, you know, little things so that I’d be able to make the jump and be a National Hockey League player. Things have been going so good ever since.
Q: Have you had a welcome to the NHL moment and what was it?
A: Yea, I’m from Whitby, Ontario and, being a Leafs fan growing up – everyone was a die-hard Leafs fan – and playing in the Air Canada Centre against the Leafs was, you know, a moment where you step back and you say ‘Am I really here?’ And I happen to score a hat trick in that game and it was a crazy moment, and something I’ll never forget.
Q: Your first fight was against Derrick Brassard and it looked like after the first punch you had him down (it was later revealed Brassard had dislocated his shoulder)
A:[Laughs] Yea, I don’t know I guess that’s the way it goes and things happen like that. He asked me to fight and its too bad that happened to him, but that’s part of the game.
Q: Many people are saying you could be a favorite for the Calder trophy. Have you been watching the Calder race and if you could vote for anyone who would get your vote?
A: Yea, obviously Bobby [Ryan] has been unbelievable ever since he came up. But you don’t want to look too much into [the rookie race] because you kind of just let your play do the talking, I guess. But its always in the back of your mind but you just got to do your thing on the ice and things will take care of themselves.