Going into the season, most had tapped this game as James Neal’s triumphant return to Nashville for the first time since being selected by the Golden Knights in the 2017 Expansion Draft. However, due to unforeseen injury circumstances in Vegas, this game might double as a Subban family reunion.
Assuming Vegas goaltender Malcolm Subban, P.K. Subban’s brother, gets the start on the front end of a back-to-back for the Golden Knights, it will be the first-ever meeting between the Subban brothers at ANY level of hockey.
To add to the intrigue, Malcolm and P.K.’s father Karl will be in attendance as part of the Golden Knights’ fathers trip.
So, what jersey will Karl be wearing at the game?
“I don’t know,” P.K. Subban said on Thursday. “Knowing him, he probably won’t even wear a jersey tomorrow.”
Malcolm was picked up on waivers before the start of the season after spending his first professional years in the Boston Bruins organization. After Vegas’ prized goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was sidelined with an injury, Malcolm had the chance to take over as a starting goaltender for the first time in the NHL. While he has dealt with injury issues of his own since then, he’s been a rising star for the Golden Knights on their unprecedented run, winning six of his eight starts with a .923 save percentage.
His older brother, watching from afar, has been proud of all of Malcolm’s accomplishments.
“I know he loved his time in Boston, so he’s still close with a lot of guys in the organization,” P.K. said. “He loved his time there, but we know the way the business is and he got an opportunity somewhere else. I think Boston also gave him that opportunity, I’m sure that they knew there was a good chance that he would get picked up on waivers. They’ve done so much for him in his career, but I know that since he’s been in Vegas, it’s been some ups and downs.
“Obviously, he had the injury earlier on once he came in and had a hot start and I know that for him, he had some adversity coming back and re-gaining that confidence and getting back. He did a really good job of that. It shows his growth as a professional and I think he feels pretty confident right now. He’s going to continue to have to work at it every day.”
As far as preparation goes, P.K. has not faced his brother in any organized game of hockey. The last time he took shots on Malcolm was in the driveway when they were kids.
Therefore, he won’t have too many tips for how to beat the goalie.
“There’s no tips, I mean, I haven’t shot on him in awhile,” he said. “Maybe that’s part of his kind of thing is not having me shoot on him so I don’t know where to go. I’ll find a way tomorrow if he’s in there.”
Not to be overshadowed, this will be Neal’s first game against the Predators since being picked by the Golden Knights in the Expansion Draft back in June. While Neal has been posting 13 goals and eight assists through 27 games, his impact is still being felt in Nashville.
“He was a big part of it,” said head coach Peter Laviolette, who came to the Predators shortly before the trade that brought Neal to Nashville. “He was here from the time I got here, and he was part of the leadership group, part of the reason why I believe we kept taking steps forward and steps in the right direction.”
Neal was brought to the Predators on draft day in 2014 in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, the first of many “hockey trades” that general manager David Poile would make. One of the many reasons why that trade was so good for the Predators was that it allowed them to keep their 11th-overall pick.
That pick turned into Kevin Fiala, who had the chance to learn from Neal in his time with the team.
“He was a great guy,” Fiala said of Neal. “I played with him a lot of times last year and he was great. Just a great guy and a great player.”
In essence, Neal was the Predators’ original true top-six forward in the Laviolette era. His arrival signaled a turnaround for the franchise and a new direction for the team. Before Poile made three blockbuster trades in a two-year span, including his recent acquisition of Kyle Turris, the Neal trade was perhaps the biggest in franchise history. In Neal’s first season, a team with a lottery pick the season before turned things around and took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to six games in the first round.
Goaltender Pekka Rinne, who has been in Nashville longer than any other teammate, remembers Neal’s impact on the team.
“Great player,” he said. “There’s not too many times you play with a guy who’s that kind of goal scorer. You know you’re going to get plus-20 goals from him. He was a very important player for us for the past two or three years when he was here. I really liked playing with him, he’s a great guy and I was extremely disappointed when I saw him go this summer.”
There will likely be a tribute of some sort for Neal during Friday night’s game, as the team has done for other returning Predators alumni. The Predators and Golden Knights get things going from Bridgestone Arena at 7 pm on Friday.