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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski

It’s much too early to worry about James Neal

James Neal is arguably the one of the biggest free agent adds of Brad Treliving’s tenure. His arrival was supposed to elevate the Flames’ offence into the upper echelon of the league. Twelve games into the season, Neal hasn’t found his offensive touch quite yet, but should there be concern?

Neal has enjoyed a very productive NHL career thus far, renowned mainly for his scoring ability. He joined the Flames as a 31-year-old, and is signed to play through his age 35 season. Not exactly prime playing years for a hockey player per se, but someone with Neal’s scoring prowess should have no problem finding the back of the net and contributing to the Flames’ offence. Yet, with the season well underway, Neal only has two goals and one assist to his name. So what’s the deal?

Looking back over his previous four seasons as a member of the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights and comparing them to this year, it’s clear that his point production has suffered, but his play might not be too different at all. He might just be largely unlucky to start this segment of his career. Taking a look at the numbers, his slow start might just have an explanation after all.

All data via Natural Stat Trick.

Individual efforts remain strong

Neal’s spent most of his time as a Flame on the third line, and his reduction in ice time is evident. Unless he gets a bump up to the first or second line, he’s likely going to be working with less ice time than he’s used to. Perhaps this speaks to the Flames’ offensive depth that they’re able to slot Neal into their third line, but in terms of opportunities to get onto the scoreboard, this is to Neal’s detriment.

Pat Steinberg recently wrote on where James Neal should fit in the lineup, and as it is still early in the season, there is plenty of time to experiment with line combinations.

Season Team GP TOI/GP G/60 A1/60 A2/60 Shots/60 S% iCF/60 iSCF/60 iHDCF/60
2014-15 NSH 67 14:11 1.01 0.50 0.32 10.73 9.41 21.77 10.54 3.22
2015-16 NSH 82 15:13 1.15 0.43 0.19 9.47 12.18 17.16 8.07 2.84
2016-17 NSH 70 13:58 0.92 0.49 0.06 9.08 10.14 15.64 8.10 3.31
2017-18 VGK 71 13:58 1.03 0.48 0.24 9.43 10.9 16.99 9.49 2.96
2018-19 CGY 12 12:37 0.79 0.00 0.40 8.32 9.52 16.24 9.91 2.38

In terms of 5v5 scoring, things haven’t quite gone Neal’s way yet. However, in terms of his individual offensive output, he’s still getting shots at very similar rates as he did when with Nashville and Vegas. There’s really no indication that his play has worsened since joining the Flames, but instead, it looks like a case of simply being snakebitten.

Speaking of being snakebitten, Neal’s most common linemate has been Sam Bennett by a large margin of time. He’s spent 81:16 of 5v5 ice time with Bennett, and his next most common linemates are Derek Ryan and Dillon Dube, at 43:34 and 41:06, respectively. If there was any other player who’s been unlucky, Bennett puts up a pretty decent argument for himself. Neal’s probably had a handful of assists that evaporated in front of both his and Bennett’s eyes as Bennett has seen his fair share of grade-A opportunities turn into extremely near misses. As one starts scoring, maybe so too will the other.

On top of that, playing with Ryan and Dube, who themselves are struggling on offence, probably add to Neal’s lack of production.

On-ice performance not too different either

Looking at the five-man units that Neal’s been a part of, the 5v5 on-ice numbers aren’t too different year-to-year. While the numbers trend slightly more south this year, the differences just aren’t large enough to raise any red flags.

Season Team CF% GF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO
2014-15 NSH 57.02 60.47 57.93 54.35 64.58 9.44 92.24 1.017
2015-16 NSH 53.59 63.86 53.79 52.80 61.90 8.47 94.69 1.032
2016-17 NSH 52.28 48.61 53.16 53.63 54.05 6.88 92.31 0.992
2017-18 VGK 50.51 46.39 49.83 46.75 44.23 9.00 89.76 0.988
2018-19 CGY 50.17 46.15 47.59 44.62 66.67 8.70 91.14 0.998

Nothing stands out as a reason to be alarmed, as Neal and his current linemates are playing at similar rates as his linemates from previous teams. The discrepancy between last season and this one is minimal, yet Neal was still productive as a Golden Knight. Conversely, his linemates in Nashville seem to have far better on-ice numbers, especially when it comes to generating scoring chances and high-danger opportunities. While that might be an indicator, there’s probably still yet better explanations.

The powerplay, on the other hand

Neal’s still being used on the powerplay, much like he has been in previous years. He’s still getting about two and half minutes of powerplay time per game, but hasn’t been able to score at all. Neal is firing pucks at the net as frequently as ever when on the man-advantage. However, the shots that he’s been shooting have not been high-danger. That alone might be the reason why his point production isn’t where it’s expected.

Season Team TOI/GP G/60 A1/60 A2/60 Shots/60 S% iCF/60 iSCF/60 iHDCF/60
2014-15 NSH 2:53 0.93 0.31 0.00 9.92 9.38 15.81 10.54 5.27
2015-16 NSH 2:46 1.05 1.84 0.79 13.16 8.00 20.53 16.59 7.90
2016-17 NSH 2:47 1.56 1.87 0.62 12.48 12.50 18.42 14.67 7.18
2017-18 VGK 2:29 1.72 0.69 0.69 9.28 18.52 17.53 11.34 7.56
2018-19 CGY 2:28 0.00 0.00 0.00 18.16 0.00 20.18 10.09 2.02

However, the Flames are well-versed with having a putrid powerplay, and this season offers little difference. From Neal’s perspective, this could be one of the worst powerplays he’s ever been a part of. It’s not clear how much of that can be blamed on Neal and how much on the Flames’ powerplay system on a whole, but it’s a definite area in need of immediate improvement.

It’s true, some part of that will be up to Neal, but the Flames must also figure out a powerplay system that actually works for them. There’s no reason that a powerplay with the skill level that the Flames have should be performing at its current level.

Season Team CF% GF% SCF% HDCF% HDGF% On-Ice SH% On-Ice SV% PDO
2014-15 NSH 89.47 95.00 92.13 90.48 85.71 11.24 95.65 1.069
2015-16 NSH 91.18 94.59 92.06 92.11 94.12 16.28 93.33 1.096
2016-17 NSH 89.63 89.66 85.47 84.29 85.71 15.76 86.36 1.021
2017-18 VGK 86.56 86.21 86.84 83.87 80.00 18.25 84.00 1.022
2018-19 CGY 91.84 50.00 91.67 87.50 100.00 3.85 75.00 0.788

The numbers speak for themselves. It’s really mind-boggling just how poor the powerplay has performed so far. A powerplay shooting at 3.85% is unheard of and it’s likely a direct reason why Neal’s been held to such low point totals.

No need to panic

All in all, there’s no need to panic with Neal. He’s been solid as a Flame so far, and things should turn around sooner than not. If Bennett starts scoring, Neal will likely be a primary beneficiary of that. If the powerplay starts to convert, Neal will definitely be a beneficiary. There are much bigger areas of concern as the Flames continue to figure out their game, but it doesn’t look like Neal should be one.

  • Pete80

    I agree, he’s not just new to this team and its coach, he’s coming off a long playoff run. A lot of players aren’t quite right the fall after a long post season. I remember one of the players from the 04 cup run saying it took 3 years to recover

  • MWflames

    He’s probably assisted on at least 4 of Bennett’s early season posts… That line was getting good last night, and have a couple other decent outings together. That unit is definitely a bit snake bitten.

    The Neal I remember watching on other teams tho was a shooter that could simply beat a goalie one on one. We haven’t seen that yet. I’d like to see Neal’s linemates look for him a little more

    • Cfan in Van

      He does look a bit hesitant when he has the one-on-one opportunities. Hopefully he starts just letting’er rip without hesitation, because that’s the guy I remember hating too. Annoying to play against, has a wicked riffle snapper.

  • Jimmyhaggis

    Why is there always this excuse about how terrible the PP is, this isn’t rocket science, other teams develop effective PP. If Flames can’t figure this out, hire a guy who can put together a decent PP. We have the talent, I think.
    Getting tired of hearing about our lousy PP.

    • buts

      Our PP will never be good until the personnel on it starts winning more board battles for pucks, winning loose puck battles and shoots not passes when in a shooting area of the zone. Unfortunately the guys losing these battles are our most talented players.

  • thumz

    A 5.75 mill per year sniper.. it’s time to unleash him in the PP1 unit! It’s mind boggling that he’s not being used there given how the powerplay has been going so far.

  • Lazarus

    Thankyou. Not that it will calm down Walter Chicken Little.
    And why is everyone so stunned about Lindholm? Must be a lot that don’t follow the game. He was a 5th I recall for a reason and I said preseason Lindholm is the player Backlund wishes he was and never could be. Trash away

    • The GREAT WW

      We’re surprised at Lindholm’s sniping ability because last year he had 16 goals in 81 games, he has started this year off with 8 goals in 12 games……

      So far so good!

      WW

  • MDG1600

    If he was getting paid $3M I would agree with this article but at $5.8M they have blown cap space they will desperately need to sign Tkachuk and a goalie next year.

    • withachance

      Stone likely traded, Smith coming off the books, Frolik more than likely to be gone by the end of the year too. That’s 12M in cap space. I think the Flames will be fine….

        • withachance

          I know weed is legal now but you need to pace yourself and not smoke it all in one go!

          Who on god’s green earth is Tre going to sign for 7M…. Bob is not coming to CGY i will bet my house on that.

          • SgtRoadBlock

            we pay over $5 for Neal just to get him here that not even Convert to USD… so $7 million for a goaltender in 2019 not going to be out of the norm..

      • MDG1600

        I know you wish that Stone and Frolik will magically disappear but they are on the books for next year at close to $8 million and no one is taking on their contracts unless they send us a big contract back or they get a young prospect in the deal.

  • Brick

    James Neal should be playing in the top 6. The Flames need someone to step up and become a playmaking 2nd line center. (Jankowski?) Michael Backlund belongs on the 3rd line as a checking center.

  • Brian McGrattan's Salute

    I really like that third line of primarily Bennett and Neal. They need a permanent centre tho. Jankow looked pretty good last night. I think that line could get pretty hot at some point, and score those hard working goals the team needs at key points in the game. Two scoring lines, can you imagine??

  • withachance

    Was never a fan of splitting JG and Monny but can see some real scoring options, especially giving Neal a potent offensive Centre

    JG – Lindy – Tkachuk (this line just makes sense the more I look at it)
    Bennett – Monny – Neal (2 crash and bang players and hopefully Monny can help increase scoring chances for Bennett and Neal)
    Dube – Backlund – Frolik (Shutdown line, Dube getting Backlund bump)
    Hathaway – Janko – Ryan (2 centres, energy line who can dominate other 4th lines hopefully)

    Not sure, but this could be viable option for BP if he wants to split the top line and get Neal going

    • Heeeeeere's Johnny!

      Not bad. I too have not been a fan but am warming up to it. My first preference is to put Chucks or Bennett on the right side with instructions to head for the net on every zone entry to open up space for Johnny.

    • KKisTHEproblem

      I’d also like them to try:

      JG-Monny-Neal (JG feeds Monny and Neal, Neal good on boards)
      Bennett-Lindholm-Tkachuk (2 really good on the boards, Tkachuk such a good passer, Lindholm can finish and maybe Benny gets figures that figured out too)
      Dube-Backs-Fro/Czar (same reasons)
      Hath-Janks-Ryan/Czar (same reasons)

      I’d really like to see how Lindholm does with some time at center and good wingers

  • Off the wall

    Here’s the thing for me. Neal was brought in for shoring up our top 6 .He’s also getting paid for it.

    If he’s not going to be effective as a top 6, move him. I don’t think we have the luxury to pay him $5.75M to be a 3rd line RW. I don’t care if it works for the Penguins- they have a different team than us. Besides, Kessel makes Neal’s contract unpalatable.

    It’s early enough not to panic, however it’s not going to work if you don’t find a way to get Neal Scoring. That’s why he’s here.
    He’s here to DELIVER.

    Didn’t we just buyout the albatross Brouwer? I’m not comparing the two- Neal has a much better history and a better game. I just don’t want to see us misusing our Cap Space for another player again, especially one of Neal’s caliber- who has yet to get his game back.

    Am I being too harsh? I don’t think so.

    • withachance

      It’s 12 games. TWELVE GAMES. Honestly surprised with the lack of patience here – almost as bad as the Habs or Leafs fans when things dont go their way. At least wait until 30-40 games in to see where the team is at.

    • Beer League Coach

      No FA over the age of 29 should ever get any more than a 3 year contract. If they demand big $$ they must be ready to accept a shorter term. btw I am old enough to remember when players were signed for 1 year at a time. If they performed they got a raise. If their performance decreased they got a reduced salary. That is the way it should be. Players now have the attitude that 1 good year entitles them to a huge salary for their entire career. Management must also share the blame. Since Charles Wang gave Rick DiPietro that 15 year contract other teams are also caving in to players demands. It is time for sanity to return to salary and term in players contracts.

      • Beer League Coach

        Kudos to Kyle Dubas for not caving in to the demands put forth by Willie Nylander (or his agent). Hopefully Dubas can lead the way back to realistic salaries and length of contracts.

        • HOCKEY83

          Dubas will be without 2 of Matthews Marner and nylander by this time next season. There’s no way they can afford to sign all three for what the rest of the league thinks they’re worth. Why should nylander take less so Marner and Matthews can make bank. Before the season started Nylander and Marner were worth almost the exact same amount.

  • buts

    Last night Neal on a nice setup from Janko I believe had the upper part of the net open and he didn’t get it up and it was stopped by Anderson. The Neal I’ve seen would have buried that 9 out of 10 times. I don’t know what’s wrong he seems a bit slower, he’s losing battles on the boards and he seems a bit disinterested. I agree with WW and skymut if you can trade him away, that 5 million will be needed and I’m sure an asset would it be a player or pick would be good.

    • withachance

      I dont understand the argument of “Neal is playing bad, we need the cap space”. If Neal was lighting it up would the Flames not need the 5M cap space anymore??? Would we not still need Tkachuk??? Tre knew going into the season what the cap situation is like and obviously has a plan WITH NEAL’S CAP in mind, so I really consider the cap a moot point when it comes to Neal’s performances. If you’re arguing for trading Neal, it better be because he sucked so much in the first 12 games that he was costing games, which simply hasnt happened.

        • withachance

          I see your point. But again, whether if it was an overpay, fair contract, or underpaid, 5.75M is 5.75M – if Tre made the decision to lock that number in, he did it understanding what it meant for the cap. And I’m pretty sure he doesn’t intend to lose Tkachuk, with or without the additional 5.75M cap.

          I’m not defending the contract or saying its a good signing as of now, just saying that cap situation should not be a primary or secondary argument for signing RFAs right now.

          • Mitchell

            I feel it’s a little early to give up on him, but assuming his contract ends up being horrible it hurts the team in that it hinders them from bringing in quality depth via trade or FA.

        • HOCKEY83

          Neal’s slight overpay was the cost of adding and winning a free agent. I think it works itself out with the incredible deals that the Flames have Johnny and Monny at. Sure maybe he’s only worth 3mil but Johnny is worth 9 at least and monny should be 7. Good deals and bad deals that’s the NHL. I think the flames lean more toward the good in that aspect.

  • Fan the Flames

    I like him playing with Sam and Dube in the middle . Janko doesn’t drive offence . Sam and Neal are nasty and Dube is fast and turns over pucks Neal is starting to show and I am going to give him the time to adjust .

  • SgtRoadBlock

    Only way to make Neal score is split the 1st line up… i know i know that crazy But

    that line scores we win if they don’t we lose.. we do need a 2nd line
    the 3m line more of a checking line with Matty in Limbo waiting for his Cash day

  • herringchoker

    Damn sky is falling Millenials on this board. You piss me off.

    Neal and Bennett are creating high danger chances every game. They are fun to watch. Sooner or later that puck will cross the goal line in numbers. Neal is not Brouwer. Part of the issue with playing with a Canadian team is the pressure and expectation. It takes some guys time to figure it out. Neal will get his 20+ goals this season. Every game in Calgary is the stanley cup final.

    Please chill out. These type of articles are such so predictable.

    • SgtRoadBlock

      Brouwer is Neal just cheaper in the long run, just look at Neal now he slow and with cost us about 2 to 4 mins a game in the box… aka Bryout in 2020