On James Neal:

The truth isn’t always easy. In a society mainly concerned with comfort, we will often seek convenience over the truth.  Our love of the scapegoat is a perfect example of this. We’ve seen it many times in many realms; we’ve seen scapegoats in politics, in war, and in sports. We do it because its easy. It’s easy to find a singular, simple source of blame than it is to scratch beyond the superficial surface of an issue.

A Flashback:

I remember it was an unseasonably warm Australian afternoon in late June. I had just finished a four hour Corporate Law exam and was waiting in line for a double triple shot of espresso so I could stay awake for the rest of the day. Friends back home were taking part in the Canadian past time of watching the NHL draft and criticizing their favourite team’s picks as couch-ridden, unpaid general managers. I turned my phone on, and it blew up. 

James Neal had been traded to the Nashville Predators. I was shocked. Not because he’s a 40 goal scorer. Not because of his big body presence or his quick release that would make most players envious. Those things can theoretically be replaced. The reason the trade struck me as curious was that I couldn’t for the life of me propose a valid reason as to why it happened.

The (debatable) official reasons for the trade eventually surfaced. Over the next few months a number of additional articles emerged discussing the trade. There was an overwhelming theme that this trade was chemotherapy for the Penguins; that they had eradicated a cancer in removing James Neal. Articles claimed that this trade improved the character and the dressing room environment of the Penguins (without providing any real evidence). Usually, the writer hinted to whispers amongst pundits or equated on-ice discipline with who Neal is as a person and a professional. James Neal – the player and the person – deserved more than that.

The Player’s Player:

James Neal is, and always has been, a great team-mate. He’s loose in the dressing room. His on and off-ice chemistry with Geno was rivalled by few power duos in the league. He’s a professional in every sense of the word. Coaches and players past and present vouch for his relentless work ethic and dedication off the ice and during practice.  

Neal and I playing for Whitby Minor Bantam AAA for the 2001-02 season.
Neal and I playing for Whitby Minor Bantam AAA for the 2001-02 season.

I played for nearly ten years with James Neal. We put on the same jersey for close to 1000 games of hockey. For most of them, he was my captain. He’s a silent yet strong leader who leads the way by example. He’s more dedicated to his body and his craft than anyone I’ve ever met.

He is selfless and will do whatever is asked of him (just ask Craig Hartsburg, who took Neal to fill a third line checking role with Team Canada on its way to World Junior gold in 2007). He’ll hit hard, he’ll fight if he has to, and he’ll do whatever gives the team the best chance of winning. He wants to win more than anyone in that Nashville dressing room right now. Ingrained deep within him is a sense of integrity that will never allow these things to change. Nashville is extremely lucky to have him, and they know it. Simply put, he’s a player’s player.

James Neal winning the U21 World Juniors in 2007. [Source: Getty Images]
James Neal winning the U21 World Juniors in 2007.
[Source: Getty Images]
He’s shown himself to be a leader since his days in junior, and he’s already taken nicely to the assistant captain role in Nashville – showing that he can not only play on the defensive side of the puck, but also relate to and mentor young superstars who are learning the professional ropes.


It begs the obvious question: If he possessed such a cancerous character, why were at least 15 other teams in the market to acquire him? Why did Nashville commit to the remaining twenty million dollars on his contract, and give him the assistant captaincy?  It doesn’t exactly add up.

James Neal was painted as the villainous cancer in Pittsburgh because it was easier than addressing a massive lack of depth and toughness that the Penguins are suffering from.

Let’s Be Honest:

The trade was a bad one. It was a knee-jerk reaction by a new general manager who felt he needed to make a big splash to show fans that the perennial underachieving of the Penguins was not going to be tolerated. Neal was the biggest name that also doubled as a disposable commodity. Let’s face it, Crosby and Malkin weren’t going on the block. When you look at the trade, at both face value and in greater detail, it requires an additional layer to make it justifiable to fans and experts alike. The James-Neal-is-a-cancer myth served that purpose.

The Real Issue:

The Penguins maintained the core of superstars that won a cup, so why is post season under-performing becoming a theme in Pittsburgh? They lost the character that it takes to win in the play-offs.

Think of game seven against the Red Wings in ’09. Remove Max Talbot, his grit, and his two clutch goals from the Penguins line-up. Does Crosby lift the cup at the end of that game? Probably not. 

Max Talbot scoring what turned out to be the Stanley Cup winning goal in 2007. [Photo Source: USAToday.com]
Max Talbot scoring what turned out to be the Stanley Cup winning goal in 2009. [Photo Source: USAToday.com]
So how did the James Neal trade fix this culture of quitting when the games get tough? Of folding when adversity strikes? How did it help with character?

It didn’t. 

The Pens didn’t add anything in that department, and their play-off woes remained the same. You need sandpaper to win in the play-offs. Neal has that, and I’ve yet to see it in his replacement(s).

James Neal, The Person:

I understand the convenience behind the scapegoat. I understand its logical use in deflecting attention away from under-performing franchise players and in appeasing fan criticism. I understand that Neal was the perfect head to roll and this is a business. It would have been much tougher for Jim Rutherford to roll up his sleeves and go to work on the actual problems plaguing the Penguins. Yet something deep inside of me can never agree with how they turned James Neal into a scapegoat. They did it by attacking his character and his person.

There’s an entire human being the fans and media don’t see. They don’t see the guy who wakes up before sunrise to put long hours into training during his off-season. They don’t see his charity work, in both his home town and in Nashville. They don’t see the guy who takes care of his friends and family, all the people who love him for the man he’s become. 

James Neal supporting Smilezone Foundation at the abilities center in Whitby, Ontario. [Source: James Neal's Official Instagram]
James Neal supporting Smilezone Foundation at the abilities centre in Whitby, Ontario. [Source: James Neal’s Official Instagram]

We’re all entitled to an opinion. If you believe Neal’s departure was the start of a positive change in steel town, I respect that. I only ask that in your endless justification of the trade, do not stoop to taking shots at his character or his integrity.


It’s too easy to criticize a man when he’s out of favour, and to make him shoulder the blame for everybody else’s mistakes.” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace.


Big Picture:

These players are human beings just like you and I. It is in recognising them as such – through our human empathy – that we must find the strength to resist the urge to join in the whispers of defamation and gossip. The people we use as scapegoats, in politics or in sports, are certainly not perfect.

But they do their best. They make mistakes, but so do we. They love. They bleed. They sweat. They cry.

Treat them that way.

Be good to each other,

– MG.

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8 thoughts on “On James Neal:

  1. When did the Penguins make him a scapegoat or call him a cancer? I think you’re talking about people outside of the Penguins organization. Trust me, as a Penguins fan (who owns two James Neal jerseys), I hated the trade the day it was made more than anyone. At the time it made little sense to me… former 40 goal scorer w/ perfect Geno chemistry… on a deal (Real Deal) of a contract… but now in hindsight it makes perfect sense. The Penguins now have Hornquist who is a different “type” of scorer than Neal is, which is what the Penguins were really lacking come the Playoffs, and they have Kessel now who is really the “new” James Neal “type” of scorer that they acquired using the second piece of the Neal trade. I understand you have a personal attachment to James, but don’t let that cloud your judgement of a “business” trade. I feel like you’re taking it out on the wrong people and reading into it too much. The Penguins needed a “shakeup” and Neal was the best valuable piece that could fetch a nice return without losing too much in the process. Also, the Penguins would have lost in the Playoffs with or without Neal this year as you may have noticed they only had 1/4 of their top 4 defense-men playing. Hard to score in the Playoffs when you have no D-men to give you the puck. Wishing James the best of luck in Nashville. He is the “Real Deal” after all.

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    1. Hey, thanks so much for reading and your comment.

      I don’t believe I ever explicitly or implicitly suggested it was the Penguins that called him cancer or made him a scapegoat, I apologise if that’s how you interpreted it. I agree it was very much outside the Pens organization. I think you might not be reading enough into what I’ve written.

      I also never “lost sight” of the fact this was a”business” trade, as I explicitly mentioned that I understood it was a business decision. Neal was the only player of value that was also moveable, and the GM wanted to make some moves.

      I actually had noticed the defence corps issues in the play-offs, which is why it was so strange that they would trade away their top defensive prospect (along with Spaling, and high draft picks) to try and regain what they had with Neal in the first place. In many ways the Kessel trade highlights issues within the Neal trade.

      I don’t want to get too much into discussion on a comments section, but feel free to message me on any of the outlets I’ve provided if you wish to continue a discussion.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting my friend!

      ~MG

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      1. “I understand its logical use in deflecting attention away from under-performing franchise players and in appeasing fan criticism. I understand that Neal was the perfect head to roll and this is a business. It would have been much tougher for Jim Rutherford to roll up his sleeves and go to work on the actual problems plaguing the Penguins. Yet something deep inside of me can never agree with how they turned James Neal into a scapegoat. They did it by attacking his character and his person.”

        Right here.

        “actually had noticed the defence corps issues in the play-offs, which is why it was so strange that they would trade away their top defensive prospect (along with Spaling, and high draft picks) to try and regain what they had with Neal in the first place. In many ways the Kessel trade highlights issues within the Neal trade.”

        This is way off, Harrington was in no way our top prospect, Spaling is a dime a dozen player, Id take Kessel over Neal anyday.

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        1. Hey!
          thanks for reading and posting.

          The “they” in those quotations is still in reference to the articles I spoke about (and then posted links to a few of them) which did attack his character and/or attack his person. I again apologize for your specific, out-of-context interpretation. I can’t stress or clarify any more than I have that I wasn’t generalising about the Pens organization or about Pens fans.

          I said their best DEFENSIVE prospect. As in, a guy who will play solid, mistake free defence for an entire career – not a d-man who is going to try to score 60 points. Pens are lacking in one of these departments and not in the other. Again this is my opinion, I apologize if you feel it is “way off”, I appreciate you telling me so.

          And thank you for sharing that you prefer Kessel to Neal, as I said in my article – your opinion is valid and you are entitled to it. I’m glad you’re happy with the trade.

          Again, you know where to find me if you wish to engage in further constructive discourse.

          All the best my friend!

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  2. When Neal was traded I was devastated, he was a great wing for Malkin and a solid performer when outside of the playoffs. In hindsight I think Pittsburgh got the best out of the Neal-trade. They landed Hornqvist and later Kessel, only giving up three significant pieces in Kapanen, Neal (of course) and a first round pick. Scott Harrington was not close too being the top defensive prospect in Pittsburgh. Dumoulin, Pouliot and Maatta were and are all ahead of him. As a Pittsburgh-fan I do not recognize the scapegoating you are referring to, but I’m sorry you feel that way for your buddy Neal. Wish JN the best of luck in Nashville.

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    1. Hey man,
      thanks for the comment.

      Again, I posted the articles I was referring to, with addition to a few others. I was never attacking the Pittsburgh fan base, who I know loved having Neal around.

      I guess being a Toronto native, I’ve seen a lot of Kessel. I’ve seen his inability to play on the defensive side of the puck (-79 in his time with the Leafs despite never leaving the top line). I saw the draft picks that turned into great players that the Leafs gave up for a guy who still has never scored 40. Most Leaf fans are thrilled with the trade – I guess we’ll see when that first and third round pick (Mark Stone, Johnny Gaudreau, Brendan Gallagher, Jamie Benn, Andrew Shaw – all recent third round or later picks, 3rd round is not insignificant).

      Either way, the Pens are now worse for cap space than they were before (Hornqvist is making only 750 thousand less than Neal) and have not addressed their depth issue (bottom six), or their d-core issues – You mentioned Dumoulin, Pouliot, Maata (a guy who’s played 98 games in the show is no longer a prospect in the true sense of the word, but anyways)….how many offensive d-men is Pittsburgh going to play? When is defence going to happen? The real magic of ’09 was the shut down pair of Scuderi and Orpik. Pittsburgh is missing the Scuderi type of player.

      This is opinion based for both of us, but Scott Harrington is defensively better than any of the prospects that were mentioned. He’ll never be flashy, or score a ton of points. He’s one of those guys who’s going to have a long, steady career and never demand a big cap hit. Those guys are priceless.

      Again, if you would like to facilitate further discussion, I’ve provided places you can find me.

      thanks again for reading,
      take care!

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  3. I knew James Neal growing up and none of these incidents/allegations surprise me. Yes he is a great player, but character? He was a total @$$ and quite a spioled brat, and I remember many incidents of bullying peers. Hockey was the only thing he had going for him. It amazing that he has made it this far, but it’s also amazing that as life goes on people remain who they are and karma is a bitch.

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  4. I’m a Pens fan. I grew tired of watching Neal shoot from ridiculous places during the playoffs like Kessel does now. Looking at Neal’s stats, he’s +15 for a non playoff team this year. Probably best among forwards.

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