Flames free agent targets: James Neal

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.

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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.

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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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  • Baalzamon

    So I’ve been thinking that I really want the Flames to see if they can bring Linus Lindstrom to north america this year. Tool is another story; he’s doing well over in Europe. But Lindstrom is barely used by Skelleftea. With Stockton in need of centers, I can’t help but think Lindstrom would benefit more getting more minutes in an environment over which the Flames have direct control.

    I don’t know, just something that’s been knocking around in my head lately as I live in fear of the FA frenzy.

  • Korcan

    I read somewhere, yesterday, that Vegas offerred neal a contract paying over 6M per and he turned it down. Apparently he is looking for a long term deal paying around 7M per. Good luck with that, James.

  • Off the wall

    Yes I’m weird, but today I’ve been consulting with my dog, Johnny Sockey on hockey talk.

    He’s watched most games with me faithfully since he was a pup.

    Yes, I actually carry on conversations with him. He’s very attentive and animated in his role as assistant.

    He says “yes”to the following:
    Tobias Rieder and wants Nick Shore back for some reason.
    He uses his paws as a “yes”Go figure.

    No to Duclair, or other non qualified players, no to UFA signings, including goaltending.

    I’ve argued with him about Reeves, and Ryan and he “barks” to say no!

    I asked him about the Bryout, he barked. Wtf, doesn’t he pay attention to the game!

    I’m guessing he’s saying, “not happening this season “
    Stupid dog, what does he know!

    There you have it, from my Johnny Sockey…

    Please feel free to trash away!
    I won’t share your posts with him…

    Besides, he’ll probably just bark at you!!

    • Mickey O

      There are/were supposedly 8 teams interested in Ryan Reaves. Because he’s the best at what he does. So he deserves to get paid. “But he’s just a goon!”

      Incorrect, the guy can actually play hockey if you watched the playoffs this year. Treliving will come to regret not going after Ryan Reaves harder than he did.

      • Trevy

        Heard he was looking to almost double his salary….he made $1.15 last 4 seasons. I for one was hoping we’d get him as we have literally no one to step up against the big boys, but at over $2 million no thanks!

          • Mickey O

            Things have changed in the last 4 years. At this time; with what dire need the Flames have for a tough guy; with a chance to get the best at what he does – then you pony up and over-pay for Ryan Reaves.

            The difference between 2 or 3 million is negligible in relative terms in this case, because he fills a massive hole in your current line-up.

            Anyone who says a flat out no to Reaves is dead wrong. I’m not even going to add “in my humble opinion” there because, um, they are. Happy to debate anyone on that if so inclined. Maybe make another post…

          • piscera.infada

            then you pony up and over-pay for Ryan Reaves.

            The exact same argument was made with regard to the Brouwer signing. I know, I know “Reeves is not at all Brouwer….”.

          • Mickey O

            Brouwer is hardly the best power forward in the NHL. Reaves is the best enforcer in the NHL, to the point where he makes everyone on his team play with a smidge more swagger.

  • Just.Visiting

    If it’s OK for a left hand shot to play RW, Byng should be moved to RW. With Byng, Lindholm and Frolik, voila, you have three RW. If Foo makes it, you can move Frolik to LW.

    I don’t think we should try for Neal. We’d have to overpay in both $ and term to bring him here, and the most likely consequence is that we’d ultimately just be creating competitive tension to help him negotiate a better deal with a team with which he’d prefer to sign.

    • cberg

      As I said above, I think the Flames should be in on him, but there is a limit. I agree the Flames have internal options and if the free agent route is too costly it just handicaps the team going forward.

  • freethe flames

    I have not commented in over a week so I figured I would put my two cents in here on what has been happening.

    First the trade: IMO the trade changed the dynamics of this team. Will it make them better I have no idea only time will tell. Having two guys who BP is familiar with and know his expectations should be helpful at the start of camp. In many ways the quality of players traded are a but of wash Hamilton is clearly the best player of the 4 at the moment but both of Hanifin and Lindholm still have lots of room to grow. One the questions discussed prior to what Hamilton is worth and many wanted a kings ransom and I said he will be worth what the market will bare; now we know. ( I doubt Carolina was the only team he was shopped around to).

    As far as the draft goes I have no judgement. Have the Flames had their development camp yet. The Oilers had theirs this week.

    As far as the names being discussed in regards to FA. I suspect Ryan is a done deal and quiet frankly he will be a help to this team; if it is a 3 year contract it’s IMO too long. Of the veteran guys the only one mentioned that I think would take a short term deal is Vanek and if it was a one year deal it would be better than either Neal or Grabner on long term deal deals.

    If this team wants to be a playoff contender BT needs to add some talent up front or hope that Janko, Bennett, Mangiapane, and Foo have had great off seasons and take the needed step ups in their games. They have to hope both Brodie, Backlund and Frolik have bounce back years and play like they are capable of.

  • Stu Gotz

    Neal’s model girlfriend is HOT HOT HOT. The Calgary winters will make her skin dry, wrinkly and make her age quicker thanshe would like……not a chance he signs in Calgary. She has NY and LA written all over her incredible body….

  • Vernon30

    With Doughty back to LA, Tavares roumored to be very interested in SJ, Vegas seemingly strong, EDM probably bouncing back a bit, and Anaheim still decent, the Pacific is shaping up as being a very tough division next year.

  • The Beej

    So who is the better get? Perron or Neal? Seem pretty even. Same age. Will prob get similar deals.

    I have a hunch Perron is a little higher on the list as he is right handed and we know the way Ward runs his PP.

    I think the Flames will be in on the guys… we might not get one of them though as there are always GMs that overpay and i dont think BT will be doing that this year. Hopefully not anyway.

    Still one of these guys would be a top 6 on our team. But how many years will they still be productive?

    Im torn because we absolutely need to address scoring throughout the roster and we are running out of assets to use to make this happen.

    But a long term deal for either would be super risky.

    If we were able to move Stone that might give us enough space for a higher cap hit with shorter term. Other than that im running out of ways to add to the top 6.

    Package Bennett and Kylington? This pretty much empties the D cupboard. We cant be moving Dube Mangi or Valimaki.

    So what do we do. Which way do we go here. Emptying the prospect cupboards and signing FAs – both risky propositions. Other than that there is really only reclamation projects like Duclair.

    Not saying we will get one of these guys or that we should. But if we do I get the thought process – we are running out of options to improve this team.

  • ALowry

    Glad to see most are on the same page here. Neal can be a 2nd liner, but no sense tossing term at an asset that is only going to get older, that likely won’t hit 30 goals again in his career… Good player, not the right fit for what he’s looking for.

    I agree with the Duclair sentiments, but I just don’t really get the vibe that Tre is going to sign the guy. But one can hope. Seems like a great gamble for a 1-2 year deal. I don’t see him taking away from playing time of our other youngsters like Mangiapane/Dube because there are guys like Lazar /Brouwer that can/should play less anyways. And Duclair becomes an easy piece to get rid of if necessary.
    I like Ryan too, just please don’t overpay….

    I really want to be cautiously optimistic about FA this year…..

  • StajansFinalPaycheck 3.5

    Since Derek Ryan is already signing with the flames…..and I guarantee he is 100 percent signing with the Flames, I dont think we will see James in a flaming C anytime soon.

  • freethe flames

    After BT gets around to signing Lindholm, Hanifan, Janko, Kulak and Ryan he will have between $10-12m in cap space; plenty of room to add a guy for 1 year. The problem is that many of the FA like Neal want term and that is what hurts a team. If we could turn the clock back to 2 FA signings two years ago and had signed Brouwer at $5/6m for one year instead of $4.5x 4 years we would have been much better off. I’m already concerned that the rumour for Ryan is a 3 year deal although the cap hit is about right. I would much rather go with giving Bennett/Foo/Phillips/Gawdin/Lazar a go in the top 6 rather than sign any of the big names to long term deals. Heck even Ryan could play RW on the Janko line for that matter. I still think the better idea is Vanek on a 1 year deal is the way to go. He has signed two contracts in a row 1 year at a time. If it’s not working he is still tradeable at the deadline and it gives the young guys time to develop in the AHL.

    That being said I fully expect BT to sign some depth players especially at the C position during the summer; maybe not day 1 but during the summer.

  • SgtRoadBlock

    The Canadiens acquire forward Joel Armia, goaltender Steve Mason, a seventh-round draft pick in 2019 and a fourth-round pick in 2020 from the Winnipeg Jets, in exchange for defenseman Simon Bourque.

    Picks r being toss around and we could not get one for Fox, Fail for BT part again…