Hockey is a violent sport played at an extremely fast pace. Hitting and fighting are a part of the game welcomed by the fans and the players. But sometimes the players get carried away and go overboard. You can find numerous examples of this, from Matt Cooke and Shawn Thornton, to Chris Simon and Todd Bertuzzi. As a Pens' blogger and fan, I was getting tired of having to defend Cooke every single night. Especially when Cooke did something dirty. There was a period of time I wanted Cooke off of the team. Eventually the Penguins' upper-management went to Cooke and told him to change his game or else. Since then Cooke has transformed into a decent, gritty, and skilled third-line player.
It might be time for the Pens to have that same talk with winger James Neal.
I am a huge fan of Neal, at least as far as his skill goes. Neal, who makes $5 million per-year, is one of the best scoring wingers in the NHL. He is currently sixth in points-per-game and has scored 83 goals in his last 163 games, which is impressive to say the least. Neal has developed great chemistry with line mate Evgeni Malkin. And he's an All-Star that would be a top-line player on any team in the NHL. That being said, Neal has some big-time issues.
Neal, like Cooke, can't seem to help himself from doing stupid things on the ice. It's as if Neal's mind goes completely blank and he commits a stupid act on the ice that costs himself and his teammates. But maybe saying that Neal's mind going blank is giving him too much benefit of the doubt. After all, this is an on-going trend with him.
In 2012, Neal was suspended for game four of the first round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers. The suspension came after he charged Flyer's forward Claude Giroux with an intent to injure. The suspension was justified.
Earlier this season, Neal was committed a really despicable act when he kneed a defenseless Brad Marchand in the head. Marchand was laying on ice and Neal, casually skated with his knee raised up and hit Marchand right in the head. Personally, I can't stand Marchand, and I think Marchand is a punk, but no player, let alone Neal, should be doing that kind of thing in a hockey game. It's just a cowardly act. There is truly no defending it unless you're going to go out of your way to be extremely biased towards Neal and/or the Pens.
Consider that Neal was also suspended back in 2009 for his hit on Columbus Blue Jackets' forward Derek Dorsett. Neal was suspended for two games, which was the first of three suspensions in his career. Shortly after, Neal fined $2,500, the maximum allowed under the Collective Bargaining Agreement, for high-sticking Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban.
Neal has now had two close calls this season since the Marchand incident. First, Neal has accrued three embellishment penalties, which normally results in a suspension. Neal was not suspended but it's safe to say that if he is he will be suspended again.
Then, Thursday night against the Detroit Red Wings, Neal crosschecked forward Luke Glendening in the face. A very dangerous, violent, and completely unacceptable act by Neal. Same song different dance. Neal has been given a $5000 fine, the second fine of his career. In all honesty, Neal got off lightly once again
Again, Neal is a fantastic player, but his actions are that of a goon. At what point does Mario Lemieux and the rest of the Pens' upper-management step and and talk to Neal. Neal was able to avoid a fourth-career suspension by the NHL, but perhaps the Pens should punish Neal internally.
All I know is, Pens fans should absolutely be disappointed by these consistently bush-league moves by Neal. He's a $5 million per-year player that is here to score goals, not act like a total ass clown. I know it sucks, but the hard truth is Neal is and has been a dirty player and he needs to change just as Cooke did.
If you are going to try and justify Neal's actions, take into consideration your feelings if and when a player of the opposing team does similar things against the Pens. Also, take into account the fact that Neal does not benefit the team whatsoever when he's suspended or in the penalty box.