No matter how you slice it, the Flames still need scoring help. One way to acquire scoring is through free agency, especially when the Flames are projected to have a fair bit of cap space free to use come July 1. And James Neal scored 44 points this past season, which would have tied him for fourth in Flames scoring, so let’s talk about him.
Neal has bounced around a fair bit over the course of his 10-year NHL career. Initially drafted by the Stars early in the second round, he was dealt to the Penguins alongside Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski in the midst of the third season of his career. Coming off of an 81-point explosion with the Penguins – a career year he has not even come close to repeating – he signed a six-year extension worth an annual average of $5 million.
Two seasons through that extension and following a 61-point year (the next best season of his career), he was traded to the Predators for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Three seasons into his time in Nashville, Neal was left unprotected in the expansion draft, allowing the Golden Knights to pick him up. With them, his 25 goals and 44 points over 71 games saw him fourth in team goal scoring and sixth in points.
His six goals and 11 points in the playoffs also saw him third and fourth on the team as he went on to lose the Stanley Cup in the finals for the second year in a row.
Turning 31 in September, Neal is left-shot left winger who is also capable of playing the right side (remember when Jarome Iginla went to the Penguins and Dan Bylsma had him play on the left wing while Neal played the right? The main reason for my perfectly rational Bylsma hatred five years after the fact). He’s still a scorer – he has never failed to hit the 20-goal mark over the course of a season, and has had a pretty consistent shooting percentage to show for it – but his days of flirting with being a point-per-game player appear to be well over.
It’s been seven seasons since Neal scored 81 points in 80 games, six since he put up 36 over the course of 40 games in a lockout shortened year, and five since he scored 61 in 58. Since being dealt from the Penguins, he’s ranged anywhere from .55 to .70 points per game, and his points per 60 at 5v5 have fallen under 2.00 and have yet to climb back up.
Neal, however, is still a scorer, and though he’s likely to get worse as his career continues – time afflicts us all – one has to think his raw counting stats are attractive to a group that needs top six help (i.e. the Flames).
But is he dependent on the powerplay to score? That doesn’t appear to be the case: in 2017-18, 80% of his offence came at even strength. In 2015-16, it was 76%. In 2014-15, it was 89%. The 2016-17 season appears to be the lone exception in recent history, and even then, 68% of his offence came at even strength.
The next question, then, is can Neal play responsibly? Overall numbers do point to yes, with reduced penalty minutes the past couple of seasons, as well as consistently staying above 50% at 5v5 CF for most of his career. However, he did drop to just 50.51% this past season – his lowest rating since he played for Dallas – and he also fell to a negative CF rel for the first time in eight years: -0.51%. While he did get slightly less sheltered in terms of offensive zone starts this past season, at 54.38%, he’s still been pretty sheltered: not a bad thing considering scorers should be getting more offensive zone time, but the recent drop off does warrant some pause.
Ultimately, what Neal is going to cost is probably going to be the biggest hurdle, if he’s being considered. Matt Cane projects Neal to get roughly $4.3 million for one year, which would be pretty reasonable for a guy who seems like a pretty decent bet to have another 40-plus-point season. This free agency might be Neal’s last chance for a big paycheque, though, and someone out there is probably going to be ready to give it to him; a one-year deal for a player of Neal’s current scoring ability seems unfathomable. After that point, it becomes a simple question with an answer hard to predict: at what point does he stop being worth it?
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