James Neal is due for a raise. How substantial that raise will be may not depend so much on what the Dallas Stars are willing to pay him as a restricted free agent, but how much quid another team may throw at him via an offer sheet. Neal’s name has been lobbied about as a potential offer sheet target due mostly to the fact that Stars’ owner Tom Hicks is locked in a bankruptcy battle. Although, the 22-year old Neal’s play over his first two NHL seasons warrants him a decent pay bump.
Neal is coming off of his second consecutive 20+ goal season, having potted 27 last year after a 24-goal performance in his rookie season of 2008-09. At 6’2″ and 210 pounds, Neal has the makings of a NHL power forward. His detractors would like to see a little more physicality and two-way play out of that big body, but the offensive production from the former Plymouth Whalers winger has come as a bit of surprise to everyone. He was perhaps the Stars most efficient scorer with a Goals/60 of 1.22, good enough for best on the club. Now Joe Nieuwendyk finds himself in the position of trying to gauge Neal’s worth, while trying not to low-ball him into a state of discontent.
Statistically speaking, Neal’s production over two seasons is comparable to that of San Jose’s Joe Pavelski. That’s about where comparisons should stop, at this point. Pavelski is three years older than Neal and proved his value in the playoffs as one of the few Sharks that stood out during their run to the Conference Finals. For his contribution, Pavelski was awarded with a 4-year $16 million deal. The Stars are more likely to table a “bridge” contract to Neal similar to the one given to Loui Eriksson following the 2007-08 season.
James Neal’s value to the Stars is increasing as the days change, and with Mike Ribiero’s name floating around as a potential trade candidate he should be all the more integral to their plans moving forward. There’s very little to be had in the way of free agent wingers that can make a offensive impact, which could force some teams in search of top-six forwards to do so via trade or an offer sheet. Once the Ilya Kovalchuk saga comes to an end it probably won’t be long before the likes of Alexander Frolov, Lee Stempniak, and Marek Svatos come off the board. Dallas’ financial vulnerability could very easily be exploited by teams in search of offensive wingers, making James Neal a highly sought after commodity.
So what road will the Stars take in negotiations with Neal? Will they seek to please him with a long-term deal or slip him a more financially palatable 2-year deal? If a team like the Pittsburgh Penguins sign him to a lucrative offer sheet, will the Stars allow him to walk?