Thunderbirds counting on Neal’s leadership, offensive touch

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📝 by Patrick Williams

Having played his first three-in-three weekend in nearly 14 years, Springfield Thunderbirds forward James Neal leaned against the wall outside the visiting dressing room at Giant Center in Hershey late Sunday evening.

The 34-year-old Neal had struggled to find ice time in the National Hockey League with the St. Louis Blues this season. Now he has all the ice that he can handle. Before this weekend, Neal’s last three-in-three had come April 11-13, 2008, as an AHL rookie with the Iowa Stars.

Hit heavily by second-half player recalls to the parent St. Louis Blues, the Thunderbirds ran into a rare difficult weekend on the road. They lost a third-period lead and then the game in Syracuse on Friday before 5-2 and 3-2 (in overtime) setbacks to the Bears. The 0-2-1-0 weekend was only the fourth time this season that the Thunderbirds have gone three or more games without a victory, but it was enough to drop them out of first place in the Atlantic Division.

“Tough weekend for us,” Neal said as the team prepared for the bus trip back to Massachusetts, “but we’ll have to regroup.”

In the first season of the St. Louis-Springfield affiliation, the Thunderbirds sit eighth overall in the AHL at 37-22-6-2 (.612) and are positioned to clinch a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs as soon as Wednesday when the Crunch come to MassMutual Center.

For its part, Springfield has sent an impressive group of talent on to the Blues this season. But Neal has meant a considerable infusion of talent in return for a club that has lost regulars in defenseman Calle Rosen along with forwards Mackenzie MacEachern, Alexey Toropchenko, and Nathan Walker to recall by St. Louis. Forward prospect Logan Brown and standout rookie blueliner Scott Perunovich also are in St. Louis following abbreviated stints with Springfield earlier this season.

When the Edmonton Oilers bought him out last summer, Neal went to training camp with the Blues on a tryout deal in September and earned a one-year contract. From there, he dressed in 19 games for St. Louis, where he had four points (two goals, two assists).

But Neal spent more than six weeks out of action after the Blues put him on injured reserve on Nov. 27. And after subsequent time on the club’s taxi squad and just two more turns in the St. Louis lineup, Neal found himself back in the AHL for the first time since the fall of 2008.

Receiving Neal from St. Louis brought a player with 559 points (296 goals, 263 assists) in 869 NHL games into the Springfield lineup. In 14 NHL seasons, he reached 20 goals in 10 of those campaigns, including a 40-goal performance in 2011-12 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He hit 25 goals as recently as 2017-18 with the Vegas Golden Knights. In consecutive springs he was a Stanley Cup finalist with the Nashville Predators (2017) and the expansion Golden Knights (2018).

Sure enough, Neal has churned out 24 points (13 goals, 11 assists) in just 21 games for the Thunderbirds.

Before his assignment to Springfield, Neal had played just one season as an AHL regular, back in 2007-08 as a Dallas Stars rookie prospect skating for Iowa. He played five games with the Manitoba Moose in November 2008, then spent the next 13-plus years in the NHL.

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

Being back in the AHL after years in the NHL would be an adjustment for any player.

“He’s been an absolute pro,” said Thunderbirds head coach Drew Bannister, who is using Neal on the left side of a high-end line with Sam Anas and Matthew Peca. Neal can out-muscle opposing defenders, plant himself net-front, and still possesses his customary dangerous hands and shot arsenal.

In his Springfield debut Feb. 11, Neal’s two goals led the Thunderbirds to a 4-2 win against the Hartford Wolf Pack. On Mar. 4 against Hershey, he finished off a hat trick with the overtime winner; it was his first AHL hat trick to go with nine in his NHL career. Before going scoreless this weekend, Neal had recorded at least one point in 15 of his first 18 games with Springfield.

“It’s been easy,” Neal said of the adjustment to his new team. “The guys are great. The coaching staff has been really good. It’s been an easy transition and fun playing.”

In one sense, Neal’s role with the Thunderbirds returns him to a familiar space playing a top-end role and being counted on to carry much of the offensive load. But he is doing so in a different league with less experience around him.

“I think you have to adapt,” Neal reasoned. “You adapt to whatever [you face], depending on lines you play with up in the NHL, depending on players you play with, depending on all situations. I’ve done that for a long time, so it’s an adjustment, but I’m feeling pretty good.”

Neal has been received well off the ice in Springfield, too.

“The whole Thunderbirds organization has been really good,” Neal said. “[They have] treated me very well, so it’s been very nice.”

After Walker’s departure to the Blues, Neal began wearing an alternate captain’s “A” for a March 25 road game. He also wore a letter with Nashville and for the Golden Knights in their first season. With the Thunderbirds preparing to bring playoff hockey back to Springfield for the first time since 2014, they are depending on his leadership as well as his offensive touch.

In return, Springfield means that Neal has a chance to play.

“I think he’s just trying to enjoy it,” said Bannister, himself a former 18-year pro defenseman and Calder Cup champion. “I guess at the end of the day ― and I’ve been there ― you never know when it’s going to end.”