James Neal is a scorer, and has been throughout his career. He had 37 points as a rookie; his career high is 81. As a 30-year-old playing for Vegas in the 2017-18 season, he scored 44 points. And never, at any point in his time in the NHL, has he ever failed to hit the 20-goal mark.
The Flames, a team desperately in need of scoring prowess, were a natural fit. Awarded with a five-year, $5.75 million annual average value contract – almost certainly his last big payday – expectations were probably in line for at least 20 goals and 40 points. But through 18 games this season, Neal has just three goals and four points, on pace for 14 and 18: not even close to good enough.
Neal was benched for the entire third period of the Flames’ latest game against the Sharks, a frame in which they were down by just one goal and were never out of it until the final minute. It’s not a good sign, but the team really needs Neal to get going: not just for the sake of justifying the contract and ensuring they don’t let all of that cap space go to waste, but because they need secondary scoring, and Neal should be a leader in that department.
Instead, Neal’s four points to date have him tied for ninth in team scoring, alongside:
- Sam Bennett, a fourth overall pick who is the epitome of snakebitten.
- Austin Czarnik, an AHL/NHL tweener who has been scratched for seven of 18 games.
- Mark Jankowski, a second-year player relegated to fourth line minutes and occasional healthy scratches.
- TJ Brodie, a defenceman who is fighting to get back to the top of his game.
- Michael Stone, a defenceman who has also been scratched for seven of 18 games.
Neal has averaged 15:36 a game so far this season, sixth among all forwards on the team. (Everyone above him in minutes has also scored more.) His 42:31 total on the powerplay is fifth among Flames forwards, but he’s gone point-less on the man advantage (all four forwards above him in ice time have ranged from six to eight powerplay points).
However: Neal has 10 shots on the powerplay, which puts him in line with the four forwards above him. He has 42 shots on net total, fifth on the Flames (but behind his pacing from the previous season), but just a 7.1 shooting percentage: well below his career 12.0%. If he’d been shooting at his career average, he’d have five goals: not the best, but at least an improvement.
His underlying numbers all reflect positively, no worse than 50% in any stat at 5v5 except for goals for, where he’s 42.11%. His present offensive zone start ratio, at 50%, is the lowest he’s had to date in his career.
Neal hasn’t found a home on any Flames line in particular, however. His most common linemate by far has been Sam Bennett, with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk rounding things out. After those three, you dig into bottom six forwards Derek Ryan, Dillon Dube, and Mark Jankowski (the latter two of whom he’s projected to play with next game), before you get to high end offensive players and theorized Neal linemates Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan:
|Player||TOI w/||CF% w/||Neal CF% w/out||Player CF% w/out|
While Neal’s numbers haven’t been inherently bad, there is a worrying pattern starting to form that, among the players he’s spent the most time with, they tend to be better when separated from him. The problem seems to take a different form when it comes to forwards he’s spent less time with: they both end up dragging one another down, though both may perform perfectly fine when separated from one another.
All of this begs the question: just where, exactly, does Neal fit in the Flames’ lineup? He needs to be a scorer, so do you find a way to give him increased offensive zone starts?
Do you try to reunite him with Gaudreau and Monahan to see if they can build on whatever early season falterings they may have had, and is it worth removing Elias Lindholm from what’s been a mostly effective line to date to see if this could work? (Can Lindholm handle his own line, for that matter?)
Do you keep him with the likes of Bennett and Backlund, or has that ship sailed, without much in the way of actual goals coming from it?
If trying him with Monahan again isn’t the answer, does that mean it makes sense to put him back with Ryan or Jankowski instead?
Or do you try Neal alongside Lindholm himself? They’ve only played 19:42 together to date.
If Neal starts finding success, chances are, the entire Flames group will right along with him. So what would you do?