In case Golden Knights General Manager George McPhee was considering trading James Neal prior to the Feb. 26 deadline, the team got a preview of life without its second-leading scorer Monday night.
In the first game this season without Neal in the lineup, the Golden Knights’ high-powered offense looked relatively harmless and they were shut out 2-0 by the Anaheim Ducks.
“He’s a big part of our team, so when he’s out you notice it,” defenseman Luca Sbisa said. “But at the same time those guys that came in did a good job and it’s definitely not their fault.”
Neal, who has been battling an illness for more than a week, was replaced by Tomas Hyka. Hyka flew in from Chicago earlier in the day, and made his NHL debut on the fourth line while Alex Tuch was moved up to Neal’s normal spot alongside Erik Haula and David Perron.
“(Neal) is a big part of our line for sure,” Perron said. “We do a lot of little possession plays and it’s tough for Tuch to come in and get into that.”
For what Perron and Neal lack in foot speed, they make up for in craftiness with the puck and chemistry. The veterans always seem to know where each other are on the ice.
“When I hang onto pucks or when he hangs onto pucks he knows I’m going to come through the middle,” Perron said. “It’s just a matter of playing more together, talking to each other. It’s the way we play and the way we support each other. I’ve played with those two all year and there are plays we expect to be made and it doesn’t happen. That’s what chemistry is.”
Neal is second on the team and tied for 19th in the NHL, with 24 goals this season. He has been the center of many trade rumors surrounding the Golden Knights, but owner Bill Foley said Saturday that the team likely won’t make any dramatic moves prior to the deadline.
A major reason Neal’s name is brought up as a possible trade piece is he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and will likely command a sizable contract.
McPhee can likely get draft picks for the future in exchange for Neal, but the sharp-shooter is more valuable to the current team. The Golden Knights struggled to threaten the Ducks for most of the game on Monday.
“You’re going to miss a player like James Neal,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “He’s a good player, he scores big goals for us, and yeah we definitely missed him.”
Vegas ended the game with 31 shots but failed to put the puck on net on multiple scoring chances. Perron lost the puck while attempting to make a pass on a 2-on-1 in one instance, and Haula turned down a wide-open shot from the slot in the second period.
“You notice we passed up some great scoring chances,” Gallant said. “On some of our best chances we tried to make the extra pass and in a game like tonight (we needed) to get more pucks to the net.”
There’s no doubt the Golden Knights could have used Neal’s sniper-like shot, but it’s not the only thing they were missing from the all-star.
“He draws a lot of attention from their defensemen,” Sbisa said. “They have to be aware of where he is on the ice at all time, so people kind of over-cover him and that opens up room for other players. He was definitely missed tonight.”
It was only one game, so it’s unfair to say the Golden Knights’ offense (which ranks No. 2 in the NHL with 3.4 goals per game) is unable to score without Neal, but it certainly didn't look good and may sway McPhee even further from trading the scorer.