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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski

WWYDW: How do you get James Neal going?

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
Bennett 101:03 53.11 51.95 56.48
Backlund 75:40 57.45 50.17 60.22
Tkachuk 57:13 58.72 50.45 58.98
Ryan 48:24 50.96 53.90 57.62
Dube 41:46 45.21 53.73 54.43
Jankowski 41:31 54.22 54.51 49.69
Gaudreau 34:19 44.64 53.65 53.13
Monahan 33:21 49.21 53.05 51.80

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?

    • Flaming moe

      I don’t think Toronto gives us a 70-80 point rock star for Sam Bennett and his 2 goals and 2 assists lol oh wait throw in Brodie’s 0 goals and 4 assists. Not to mention he’s went -16 in each of his last two seasons.

      Would be trade of the century if BT pulls that one off. Lol

      • everton fc

        Our first in 2019 would be going to Toronto. And I’d move Jankowski, over Bennett. The Leafs have massive cap issues, even if they move Nylander – just go to CapFriendly and see the pain. They have ti sign Matthews and Marner – and Kapanen. And Nylander. They have to decide whether to re-sign, or say goodbye, to Gardiner. Their defence is paper thin – Liljegren and Sandin are not ready. And their goaltending situation is not good, past Anderson – if he goes down, it’s Sparks and Jeff Glass. They are a few injuries away from some real issues. And Horton’s 5.3mill is on the books thru 2019-20.

        They need defence. They need to move some payroll. Nylander would only be worth discussion if he came in at exactly Gaudreau’s salary & term. If they’d take Neal, our 2019 first, and one of our defencive prospects (Kylington’s the only one we really have, in Stockton – I wouldn’t move Andersson, or Valimaki)… And he’d take same salary and term as Gaudreau…

      • HOCKEY83

        first of all he’s not a 70 to 80 point guy until he is. but the Flames even with getting rid of Brodie and Bennett could not afford the salary he’s looking for. also Toronto wants no salary back if they do trade him. they’re looking for at least a first round pick for him. they won’t be able to sign both Marner and Matthews let alone take salary back for Nylander.

  • SgtRoadBlock

    Neal was a lost cost the UFA market for old vets has never work for us , this team needs to man up and deal with a Real Goaltender at any cost…
    each bubble year we lose a prime year off the main core players…
    Trade big or Bubble Rap this season too,

  • The GREAT WW

    We finally buy out Brouwer and then immediately get into this disaster?!
    (The Backlund contract is no better but you would never know it reading FN….)

    WW

  • KeepitReal

    BT hounded Nealer for a month of the off season to convince him that Calgary was the right fit for him. That’s 30 days he’d like to get back. He’s 0 & 2 for free agent signing success. 3rd time lucky?

    Still hoping #18 can turn it around.

    GFG

  • Suck It Steinberg!

    To get Neal going, I’d suggest playin him with some offensive talented players. As mentioned above, playing him with a legitimate, offensive NHL defenceman would be a start. Having Neal play with Backlund is ridiculous. Splitting up Monahan and Lindholm is a start. Why not go with
    Gaudreau Lindholm Neal
    Tkchuck Monahan Bennett
    Dube Backlund Czarnik
    Frolik Janko Ryan

  • Jimmyhaggis

    BT has made another poor free agent signing, why he insists on thinking these older guys can continue to produce when statistics have proven production goes down with age, and particularly faster after age 30.
    Have you also noticed BT always makes a splash on draft day, trade, that also don’t seem to improve the team, smoke and mirrors! Maybe Joel Quennville would make a good GM.

  • Kzak

    Here’s a crazy idea: Over the last week or so, I’ve been pumping up the hope that Dube will eventually become that second line scoring centre that we really need, so, what about forming a line of Dube at centre with Neal on the RW and Bennett on the LW and see if they can all get themselves going? Bennett can’t score but he is certainly high energy, Dube could lean on the other two as he gets more comfortable, and Neal will have a leadership role and hopefully get settled in on a line and start scoring. Our bottom six has brought virtually no offense at all, so what do we have to lose?

  • Alberta Ice

    Without doubt, James Neal and Mike Smith will be the keys to what happens to this team. If they bring their A game each time they start, good things will happen. So far, it hasn’t happened and we’re still battling for the lead in the Pacific. That points to good depth on this team; but the team must definitely keep working hard.

  • SgtRoadBlock

    we should rest Sam and Janko two of the flames 1st rounds picks so Ryan and Neal could get more ice time … skate slow and shot wide 2018 goals…

    just playing GFG

  • Off the wall

    I don’t think there was anyone who wasn’t happy with Neal’s signing when it happened.
    The term- sure, but we were all pleased with getting Neal.

    He should be used as a top 6 player, otherwise what’s the point. He was brought in to score.

    Even though this seems contrary to the current play of Neal, I believe you have to keep him up with skilled players.

    Give him a bit of time. And pray like hell he finds his scoring touch again!

    • aye

      TBH, I personally weren’t thrilled with the Neal signing. Of course, it’s always about money and term, but I never thought he would be an addition to the core, which I expected Lindholm would be, I always thought Neal would be more of added depth scoring, which he still might be. So, I guess we’ll just keep the faith.

    • Off the wall

      Just for the sake of it perhaps we try:
      Gaudreau- Monahan- Neal
      Tkachuk- Lindholm- Czarnik
      Bennett- Backlund- Frolik
      Dube- Jankowski- Ryan or Hathaway

    • Rudy27

      It would be ideal to have each line with a line driver. I would keep Monahan with Johnny because that has always worked (Johnny can drive any line in the league). Lindholm has the speed and moves to drive the second line more than Monahan could. So I would to that switch up on your lineup.

      • Chiz

        Johnny can drive any line in the league unless the other team has big heavy physical players, the he mostly will just cross the blue line and then turn back and look to dish

  • Skylardog

    This is on Peters and no one else. Neal was demoted to the third line on opening night. He played with a raw rookie in Dube and a 31 year old veteran that couldn’t set up Skinner in Ryan. He then gets time with Bennett who couldn’t set up Mike Bossy on a regular basis.

    As for Backs, he is the classic case of being able to set up no one. Tkachuk has just one goal at 5v5 with Backlund this season, in 1888 minutes plus! Add in Neal’s 75 minutes and he has set up just one goal playing with 2 of the teams top 4 goal scorers in 250 minutes plus.

    Neal is best at points per 60 with Monahan (3.6) and Gaudreau (3.5). That comes as no surprise as most players will be best with those 2.

    But Gaudreau is also producing best when with Neal (3.5), and Monahan is also near the top with Neal (3.6). Mony is better with Bennett in limited minutes. I threw out players with less than 10 minutes for those stats.

    Gaudreau scores at just 2.19 with Mony, and at 2.29 with Lind.
    Monahan is at 1.95 with Gaudreau, and just 1.53 with Lind.

    In game 1, Monahan scored with assists to JG and Neal in just 4:07 of ice time. They had 5 scoring chances and 1 against. They had 4 HDCF and 0 against. With Lind for 7:45, the line with Mony and JG was -2, with just 3 HDCF and 3 HDCA. They has 7 scoring chances, 4 against.

    The natural move should have been Neal with JG and Mony in game 2, instead, Peters goes back to Lind with them and Neal gets just 34 seconds with the top line.

    This is on Peters. You must put players in a position where they belong and try to get players going. Neal has been handled all wrong.

  • oilcanboyd

    How do you get James Neal going? Put on a flight to Las Vegas with a one-way ticket?

    Seriously, Neal has to make his own breaks by being involved in the game every time he steps on the ice; sometimes he just looks doped up.

  • MDG1600

    If Neal can only produce if he is on a line with a premium centre maybe they shouldn’t have paid him $5.8M per. I notice Byng still produces with Backlund at centre but when Neal doesn’t produce with Backlund its all Backlunds fault – thats BS. Furthermaore, Neal is getting paid more than Backlund so maybe we should be blaming Neal for Backlunds poor offensive numbers?

      • MDG1600

        If you love your stats look at even strength pts. and you will see Backlund is right up there Byng, Johnny Hockey and Lindholm and more than double what Neal has. Stats are like prisoners – you can beat them until they tell you what we want to hear.

        • Skylardog

          Do you think Byng is any where near his potential playing with Backs and Fro. he would be the team leader in points if he played with better offensive players, even ahead of JG.

          But lets keep his point production down. He needs a contract this summer.

  • Zook

    18 games into the season with a 5 years contract man and most people are already jumped in with a big bad contract band wagon. Harmonic wasn’t any better last year and look at him now.