The Predators acquired Neal in a Friday trade that sent forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling to the Pittsburgh Penguins. In a conference call Monday with local media, Neal said he savored the expectations that accompany his arrival in Nashville.
“That’s something I’m looking forward to,” Neal said. “I need to step up and be a top guy on the team, be a leader. I’m excited for that challenge.”
Neal’s addition reflects how the Predators are attempting to add scoring punch under new coach Peter Laviolette after having a reputation as a defense-oriented team throughout the franchise’s history.
The Predators ranked 19th in the league with 2.61 goals per game last season and missed the playoffs for a second straight year.
Throughout the offseason, the Predators have discussed the need to improve their offense. They believe the addition of Neal also should help in that regard.
The 26-year-old Neal had 27 goals and 34 assists in 59 games this season, which marked the sixth straight year he scored at least 20 goals. Neal scored 40 goals in 2011-12 and had 21 goals in only 40 games during the 2012-13 season.
“These top-six forwards, they don’t just grow on trees,” Predators general manager David Poile said. “They’re not that easy to come by. The fact we were able to get James Neal, I think, is a big move in the right direction.”
Neal noted that the Predators only missed the playoffs by three points in 2013-14 despite playing much of the season without star goaltender Pekka Rinne, who appeared in just 24 games because of an E. coli infection in his surgically repaired left hip.
He realizes the Predators must improve their offense and says that’s one of the major reasons they acquired him.
“Obviously, things are changing here,” Neal said. “We’re going to be a more offensive team.”
Neal’s discipline has been an issue at times. He was suspended five games this past season for kneeing Boston Bruins forward Brad Marchand, and he also missed Game 4 of the 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinals for “reckless” hits against two Philadelphia Flyers.
Neal addressed those issues Monday by saying that “sometimes your emotions get the better of you.” Neal said that he’s learned from the experiences and will try to avoid similar situations as he concentrates “on being a leader of this team and taking my game to the next level.”
And after putting up big numbers on a team that featured the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Neal now will try to put up similar production with less talent around him.
The Predators are counting on him to emerge as the type of scorer they’ve lacked in recent years. Neal says he welcomes that task.
“I feel I’m at that stage of my game where I can take that responsibility,” Neal said. “I’m excited for that challenge. It’s going to be fun.”
The Predators also announced Monday they wouldn’t be making a qualifying offer to defenseman Michael Del Zotto, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent.