For two straight summers, James Neal had to watch from a distance as opponents took turns celebrating their days with the Stanley Cup.
In 2016-17, he was part of the Nashville Predators squad challenging to dethrone the defending champions before losing in six games to Sidney Crosby & Co. One year later, the winger had a shot at redemption as part of the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, but lost again — this time to the Washington Capitals in five.
“I didn’t really realize it until last season, but that whole run took a toll on me. Physically, my body was tired from all that extra post-season hockey. And then mentally, it’s just rough, man,” Neal wrote in a piece published in The Players’ Tribune on Wednesday. “You know, the guys who win the Cup — they have these amazing summers. They’re out there partying, and living it up, and really just letting their minds and bodies recharge. But when you lose? It’s pretty much the opposite. It burns you up.”
That his second consecutive Cup Final loss was followed by the worst season of his career — a seven-goal, 19-point campaign with the Calgary Flames that saw him struggle to find chemistry all year — was no coincidence.
“Losing two years in a row, being so close, it probably impacted me a lot more than I knew. That’s no excuse for what happened last season in Calgary — it wasn’t the outcome both parties were hoping for, and that’s on me,” he wrote. “But I think it was just the wrong fit at the wrong time.”
Now with the Edmonton Oilers after the all-Alberta trade that saw Milan Lucic dealt to the Flames, Neal has rediscovered his scoring touch (19 goals and 31 points through 55 games) and finds himself with another shot at the Cup — this time, with two of the greatest goal-scorers in the league today in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“(McDavid) and Leon, they’re both just on another planet,” wrote Neal, who also noted that he believes Draisaitl should win the Hart Trophy this year. “Having those two as your catalysts, you know you’re in good hands.”
Here are a few more excerpts from Neal’s piece, written during his stay in the NHL bubble in Edmonton:
On seeing the magic of McDavid long before being his teammate in Edmonton:
“It’s funny, back when Connor was 16 and playing with Erie, he was training with Gary Roberts, who I work with as well. And one day we were doing some on-ice drills, me and Connor and some of Gary’s other guys. And I remember watching Connor run through his stuff — and in my head, just thinking, like, Wait. This … this is Connor McDavid?? This is it?
I looked over at Gary and I said to him, ‘What’s Connor doing out here? Is he going to turn it up a little bit?’
Gary pulled him aside for a second.
He skated circles around us for the rest of practice.
At the time, he was so young. And I think he was a little nervous to be around the other guys, since we’d all been in the NHL for a few years at that point. But what I realize now is — it’s not just that Connor was nervous. It’s that he knew. He knew that, even at 16, he was already better than all of us. Even as a junior, he was already the best player on our ice. And Connor is such a nice kid that he just didn’t want to embarrass anyone.”
On McDavid for fastest skater in the league:
“I’ve played with (Crosby), and he’s got some unreal explosiveness in his stride. But Connor, man … Connor is the fastest skater I’ve ever seen. It really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you watch him up close. Nobody should be able to move that quick.”
On Draisaitl’s unconventional stick — and his ability to score goals despite it:
“It’s definitely weird the first time you see it. (And the second time, and the third time.) But he can work some serious magic with it. He’s got such a rare knack for scoring goals. I think if we’d finished the season, he’d have been a lock for 50, just like last year. Also, I remember seeing that Leon got to 50 last year without a single empty-netter — that kind of blew my mind. Not many guys can get to 50, period. But to get there without a single empty-netter?
Pretty damn good for a guy using a beaver tail for a stick.”