James Neal sees optimal fit on Flames’ top line

James Neal talks with the media about why he came to the Calgary Flames and wanting to help the team take the next step forward.

James Neal knows just how quickly an NHL team can turn its fortunes around.

He lived it last year in Vegas where the Golden Knights went from expansion team to Stanley Cup finalists.

The gritty forward who spent the last two years playing into June figures there are plenty of reasons to believe his new team can do the same.

His addition might have something to do with that, as Neal brings exactly what the Calgary Flames need most: character, leadership, scoring ability and experience.

The question now is who he’ll play with.

"I’ll go where I fit in," said Neal when asked if he expected to play on the right side of the top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

"We’ll see where everything falls, but I’m looking forward to getting a chance to play with those top guys. They’re great players who make great plays. For me to come in here and be a shooter and get open, I think it’d be a good fit."

A fit Flames fans salivated over the day Neal was signed to a five-year, $28.75 million deal this summer.

Prior to that, draft day acquisition Elias Lindholm had been the frontrunner according to coach Bill Peters following the Swedish winger’s inclusion in the Micheal Ferland/Dougie Hamilton trade.

Then again, Peters had also suggested he’d like to see left-handed shooting Matthew Tkachuk try switching from left to right wing in the pre-season to complement a trio of the franchise’s most coveted three forwards.

A left shot who has preferred playing the right side ever since he left Dallas eight years ago, Neal insists he’s open-minded. Yet, he makes an argument for why the fit with the big boys is optimal.

“That’s where I want to play (on the right side), especially on that top line with Johnny and Sean," said the former 40-goal scorer, who has eclipsed the 20-goal mark all 10 seasons in the league.

"Them both being left shots, it’s great. When you’re passing lefty to lefty it opens up quick. I love having a left-handed centreman. I look forward to playing with them. It will be great. They’re guys that can shoot the puck, but who are also great passers."

 
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A frank, open veteran who’ll bring a presence and fortitude the Flames dressing room could have used last year, the 31-year-old Neal said he’ll have a discussion with Peters about his role.

"I think we’ll talk about that as we get going here – I’ll be honest with him and I’m sure he’ll be honest with me. There won’t be any grey area there," said the six-foot-two, 221-pound native of Whitby, Ont.

"I’ll be in the right spot for me to be, whether that’s on the top line or the second line. We have great options, which is great for our team."

Neal completed his physicals Wednesday and immediately moved into his Calgary rental. Once he gets the lay of the land he’ll buy here as part of yet another relocation he’s optimistic will lead to more playoff success.

"For me, I just looked at how good their young guys are and how good they’ll be in a few years," said Neal of Calgary’s appeal as an unrestricted free agent.

"Looking at Johnny, he’s just a fun player to watch.

“We’re going to have a solid team. They have a great core of young players here up front and on the back end and a great goaltender in Smitty [Mike Smith]. This is a team with a lot of potential.

"I’m going to come here and add some leadership and some experience and bring what I can to this team."

Given his teams’ success in Vegas, Nashville and Pittsburgh, Neal was asked what the common thread was to be a successful bunch.

"It’s a lot of things, but you have to have a tight group," he said.

"It’s the belief you can win. No matter if you are down by two or up by three you know you’re going to win. On teams like that you build a belief you’re going to win. Hopefully I’m a guy who can come in and get us to that next level."

 
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He recognizes he’s just one of many newbies on a team that needed a cultural shift and offensive depth to turn its fortunes around. And with a new coaching staff and several newcomers on board he figures it’s the perfect time for a 13-hour flight to China for some ice-breakers.

"A lot of team bonding going to China – we’ll get to know each other quick," smiled Neal, whose squad leaves Sept. 11 for camp and two exhibition games against Boston.

"We’ve got a lot of change here. I know the players have high expectations so we’re looking to get off to a good start. We have a lot to learn here and we’ll get better as we go."

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