The question above is perhaps the most frequent one asked by Flames fans to start this season. With one goal and two points in his first eight games, it’s fair to say early returns on James Neal in Calgary have been underwhelming. The Flames shelled out $28.75 million over five years to land Neal in free agency, which brings with it certain expectations. Where Neal fits now, and going forward, is one of the most fascinating conversations surrounding this team right now.
Neal hasn’t been a consistent impact maker through the first eight games of the season. We’ve certainly seen some nice flashes, with his performance Friday night against Nashville probably being the most impressive. Unfortunately, those flashes have been somewhat few and far between as his five-on-five on-ice totals would point to.
While not entirely his fault by any stretch, seeing Calgary out-chanced by such a significant margin with Neal on the ice is concerning. Per Natural Stat Trick, the Flames have allowed 32 high danger chances with Neal on the ice while generating just 19 for. Again, on-ice numbers are dependent on more than just one person, so his individual totals at five-on-five are a little more telling.
In comparison to his teammates, Neal’s individual counts are somewhat middling. Most glaring is the number of individual high-danger chances we’ve seen on his stick. Prior to this season, Neal has averaged 0.77 HD chances per game at even strength; that number is at 0.38 through eight games this season, albeit with a very small sample size.
Of course, Neal wasn’t brought in solely for five-on-five work. A player of his caliber was targeted by Calgary as much, if not more, for his prowess on the powerplay. Unfortunately, when you combine his powerplay and even strength totals, they’re actually more underwhelming.
Heading into this season, Neal was averaging 3.1 shots, 5.5 attempts, and 1.2 high-danger chances per game in all situations. This year those averages are down to 1.9, 4.0, and 0.6, respectively. Again, the sample sizes are drastically different; we’re talking 703 games vs. eight. All I’m doing is trying to illustrate what he’s been capable of compared to what we’ve seen early on this year.
The potential bright side is the fact Neal is well below his career shooting percentage. At 12.1%, Neal has been one of the league’s most accurate shooters throughout his career. A shooting percentage that high for one season is considered unsustainable, but when you do it over 700 NHL games, it tells a much different story. As such, a drop of almost 6% is likely the unsustainable trend, which is good news.
FOR THE TIME BEING
We’ve established Neal is well behind his career pace in numerous individual categories. Now it’s all about tackling where the best place to use him is, or at least attempting to do so. This is where things get a little more contentious.
At even strength, Neal has generally been used as a third line player on the Flames, which rubs some people the wrong way. In reality, though, he’s been a top six player in terms of ice time so far. Neal is averaging 15:36 per game, and 12:30 at five-on-five, which puts him sixth among forwards in both categories.
The conversation has been less about how much Neal is playing and more about who he’s playing with. For instance, Neal has seen just 17:40 of five-on-five ice time with Johnny Gaudreau and just 15:58 with Sean Monahan. For sake of reference, he’s played more with four other forwards this season, and in three of those cases (Dillon Dube, Derek Ryan, Sam Bennett), the margin is significant.
Bennett has been Neal’s most frequent linemate to this point, and the two have done some good things together. The evidence below suggests Neal is most effective with Bennett on his other flank, at least for now. As such, I’d like to see a little more time for these two together on the team’s third trio.
|With Bennett||Without Bennett|
The concept of Neal as a third line player doesn’t bother me, especially on a deep forward group like Calgary’s. Ideally, a third line with Neal on it should create matchup issues for opposing teams, especially if the top two lines are doing their job.
The extreme example is Pittsburgh’s famed “HBK Line” with Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel from the 2016 postseason. I’m not suggesting the Flames are going to create something that potent, but the idea is the same.
I really liked Neal against the Predators on Friday and I thought he looked fairly decent in Sunday’s 4-1 win over the Rangers. Both of those games saw him play almost exclusively with Bennett, so letting that continue to play out makes sense. If they continue to form an effective duo with whoever their centre is, there’s a good chance Neal’s middling totals start to come around.
However, if that doesn’t happen, Calgary has a dilemma on their hands. While many still drool at the long-term potential of Neal on the right side of Monahan and Gaudreau, the team also has a good thing going with Elias Lindholm on the top line. If Lindholm continues to create, and finish, the way he has, why mess with that trio?
Then there’s the option of playing Neal with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk, which has interesting possibilities, too. The idea of Neal and Tkachuk on the same line together is pretty fun knowing how, um, unpleasant they both can be to play against.
The problem there is usage, as Backlund’s line doesn’t have the same matchup advantages. The duo of Backlund and Tkachuk have been used in tough head-to-head situations, which isn’t always conducive to great offensive totals… although someone might want to tell Tkachuk that.
For me, I’m giving Neal and Bennett a little more runway as a duo on the team’s third line. The latter is playing the best hockey of his career right now, and I think there’s a decent chance those two could wreak havoc on opposing bottom six forwards. If we don’t see a major uptick from Neal, though, then the team owes it to themselves to try him on Backlund’s line. They invested a lot of money in Neal and getting the most out of him could make a huge difference in their playoff fate.