James Neal on what it’s like to be a sniper in the NHL

James Neal. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Nashville Predators winger James Neal knows a thing or two about scoring goals.

The 28-year-old has one 40-goal campaign to his credit and he’s eclipsed the 20-goal mark in each of the seven seasons he’s played in the NHL.

Neal took to the Players’ Tribune to discuss what it’s like to be a sniper. Here are some highlights from the 2011-12 NHL First Team All-Star’s piece on potting goals in the NHL.

“The real secret to scoring goals is all about the release,” said Neal.

“There’s no time to look down, settle the puck, look back up, find an open pocket and rip it. That’s Junior hockey stuff. He [the shooter] has a half-second to make a decision and get it off.”

Neal began his career with the Dallas Stars, who drafted him in the second round (33rd overall) of the 2005 NHL Draft. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins in February of 2011 along with defenceman Matt Niskanen in exchange for Alex Goligoski.

In Pittsburgh, Neal recorded a 40-goal season. He credits current Buffalo Sabres coach Dan Bylsma for helping him raise his game by shifting from left wing to right wing.

“Dan Bylsma walked in the first day and asked, ‘Hey, do you think you could play right wing?'” Neal recalled.

“Once I got used to it, I really elevated my game, because whenever I shot the puck on my forehand, the release point was closer to the net. I was a threat at all times, especially on one-timers. I ended up scoring 40 goals the next season. So whenever a guy switches wings, it has a lot of implications for how he plays. (Thanks, Dan. You were one of the best teachers I’ve ever had.)”

Like many of the game’s best natural scorers, Neal uses a “whippy stick” to get the most out of his shooting ability.

“When I switched to a whippier stick, it allowed me to bend the stick when I push down on it and get a lot of torque on my shot — even when I’m off-balance,” Neal wrote.

“Think of it like a diving board. The more springy the diving board is, the higher you go, right? The same thing happens to a puck when it’s on a whippier stick. It’s like a slingshot effect.”

A big part of Neal’s game is finding ways to get open on the ice and in a position to fire off his shot. One thing you won’t see the 6-foot-2, 208-pound winger do is tap his stick on the ice while looking for a pass. He recalled an instance where he learned this lesson the hard way from former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards in Dallas.

“You cannot, under any circumstances, tap your stick on the ice to call for a pass, no matter how open you are,” said Neal. “I did this once during my first year in Dallas. Brad Richards was my linemate. The guy is one of the best teammates I ever had. Brad was coming down on a rush with the puck and I found some space. I thought I was open, so I started banging my stick on the ice like we were playing street hockey.

“When we got back to the bench, he looked over at me and shook his head. Instantly, I realized: Oh, man. Conn Smythe. Stanley Cup. Brad Richards. I think I messed up.

“He goes, ‘Kid, if you ever bang your stick on the ice again, you’ll never get another pass from me.'”

Neal is entering his second season with the Predators. He has totalled 184 goals and 352 points in 480 games over the course of his career.

Read Neal’s piece “What You Don’t Know About: Being a Sniper” in its entirety at the Players’ Tribune.

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