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Photo Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Were James Neal’s struggles his ‘Hamonic’ or ‘Brouwer’ season?

Expectations were high when the Calgary Flames signed James Neal to a five-year deal worth $28.75 million contract on July 2. Eighty-two games (and one playoff round) later, it’s safe to say that this acquisition hasn’t exactly met expectations.

That said, Neal isn’t the first big offseason swing by general manager Brad Treliving not to meet expectations right away. Looking back at the experiences over the first two seasons of Travis Hamonic and Troy Brouwer is illustrative of how players can adjust to new surroundings… or don’t.

Travis Hamonic

Hamonic joined the Flames via a blockbuster trade at the 2017 NHL Draft. A longtime member of the New York Islanders lauded for his two-way play and physicality – and his charity work – the expectation was that Hamonic would slot into the Flames’ second pairing and the team would have two strong pairs.

It didn’t work out. Hamonic’s structured two-way game wasn’t a great fit for TJ Brodie’s style – Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman likened it to improvisational jazz – and the pairing saw a lot of miscommunications, turnovers, and general frustration. Hamonic had just one goal and 11 points on the year, his worst-ever offensive output as a pro.

But after last summer’s swap-out of Dougie Hamilton for Noah Hanifin, things slotted much better in 2018-19. Hamonic and Hanifin played very well together and his offensive output jumped from one goal to seven.

Looking at the underlying numbers for Hamonic (via Natural Stat Trick), there’s a story behind the numbers that speaks to the chemistry problem. Hamonic’s on-ice numbers actually improved between his last season with the Islanders (2016-17) to his first season with the Flames (2017-18): his defensive per 60 minute shot attempt rates dropped pretty significantly across the board on the defensive side and jumped a fair bit on the offensive side. It’s just that his goal differential wasn’t terribly great because when he and Brodie had their challenges, the result high-danger chances they gave up ended up in their net.

Defensive metrics:

CA
/60
SA
/60
SCA
/60
HDA
/60
2016-17 64.2 33.1 31.0 12.7
2017-18 56.8 30.7 25.7 10.5
2018-19 55.0 28.6 26.3 10.3

Offensive metrics:

CF
/60
SF/
60
SCF
/60
HDF
/60
2016-17 50.1 27.4 24.9 10.9
2017-18 60.0 30.3 27.3 11.1
2018-19 65.2 33.9 32.3 13.1

Swapping out Brodie for Hanifin continued Hamonic’s year-over-year defensive and offensive rate improvements almost across the board. Heck, if you only saw Hamonic’s underlying numbers you probably wouldn’t argue that he was having challenges on the ice. After several seasons on Long Island (and in Brooklyn), Hamonic probably just needed some time to get adjusted to a new city, new routine, new role and new team and build some chemistry and comfort.

Troy Brouwer

After a pair of lengthy playoff runs with Washington and St. Louis, Brouwer signed a four-year deal worth $18 million during the summer of 2016. The idea was that he would provide the grit, leadership and playoff experience to bring the ragtag Flames over the top.

It, uh, didn’t go well. Originally tried out on the first two lines, Brouwer gradually slid down the rotation during the 2016-17 season. He wasn’t fast enough to be playing with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and not a good enough two-way player to play on Mikael Backlund’s line. As a result, he played primarily with Sam Bennett and Kris Versteeg (and later with Versteeg and Matt Stajan). He had his worst offensive season as a full-time NHLer with just 25 points.

The next season (2017-18) was even worse. Turns out Brouwer didn’t get any faster in the offseason and he remained a fixture in the bottom six alongside Stajan and Curtis Lazar (aside from brief tryouts with a combination of Matthew Tkachuk, Michael Frolik and Backlund). He had another rough offensive season with just 22 points. Treliving pulled the ripcord that summer, buying out the remaining two seasons on his contract.

Defensive metrics:

CA
/60
SA
/60
SCA
/60
HDA
/60
2015-16 55.1 29.0 25.6 9.6
2016-17 60.2 33.8 25.2 10.7
2017-18 58.1 28.9 24.0 8.2

Offensive metrics:

CF
/60
SF/
60
SCF
/60
HDF
/60
2015-16 54.2 29.8 24.8 10.1
2016-17 48.2 25.4 19.3 7.3
2017-18 60.0 30.0 23.4 9.1

From his last year in St. Louis to his first in Calgary, Brouwer had struggles across the board on both sides of the puck. His defensive rates cratered with the exception of chances against, but the quality of chances against jumped. Offensively the same cratering occurred across the board. He experienced a pretty decent bounce-back from his metrics in Year 2 with the Flames, but that was getting sheltered a ton by head coach Glen Gulutzan in terms of the quality of the opposition he was playing against. In that context, it didn’t make a ton of sense to keep paying a fourth liner $4.5 million per season if he would need that much sheltering to be effective.

Which one did Neal experience?

Neal’s been a traveling, hockey-playing man over the past few seasons with two straight trips to the Stanley Cup Final (in 2017 and 2018) and he was getting used to his third team in three seasons. For a guy with a lot of mileage on his body, it makes sense that he’d slow down a bit. But was 2018-19’s seven-goal, 19-point season Neal having his Hamonic-style adjustment year or his game falling apart Brouwer style?

Defensive metrics:

CA
/60
SA
/60
SCA
/60
HDA
/60
2017-18 56.2 30.7 26.9 9.9
2018-19 55.6 30.3 26.5 10.5

Offensive metrics:

CF
/60
SF/
60
SCF
/60
HDF
/60
2017-18 57.4 30.2 26.7 8.7
2018-19 56.9 27.8 25.1 9.7

The encouraging thing about Neal’s metrics is that we don’t see the massive cratering that we did with Brouwer. Rather than an across-the-board impact – his numbers aren’t all up like Hamonic or all down like Brouwer – it’s a bit of a mixed bag. His offensive rates are down slightly – though his high danger chance rate is up slightly – and his defensive metrics are largely flat aside from a bump up for high danger chances against. All this while enjoying a lower rate offensive zone starts that he has over the past five seasons.

In simpler terms: his game doesn’t appear to imploding the way Brouwer’s was upon arrival, which leaves the door open to suggest that perhaps there’s hope for Neal to bounce back offensively the way Hamonic did this past season. Neal’s personal and on-ice shooting percentages were among the lowest of his career and points to rough puck luck being the main culprit behind his woeful offensive year. That suggests that if he keeps doing what he was doing last season – and maybe work on his foot-speed a bit over the summer – the bounces should start going the other way before too long.



  • Abagofpucks

    Don’t give up on jn just yet, he played a lot of playoff hockey the past 2 years.
    i promise you he will be better this next year, how much i don’t know but i believe he will be a viable player for the next 2 years at least, that’s all i’m sayin.

    • BlueMoonNigel

      You sound like that sniveling Notley beseeching the beleaguered Alberta electorate to give her another chance.

      I hope Tre soon does onto Neal what the good folks of Alberta–those nincompoops in Edmonton aside–did to the Notley socialists.

      • BringtheFire 2.0

        Firstly, it’s; “unto” and not; “onto” and secondly I come here to get away from politics.

        You should try it.

        Also, you were hot for Neal when he was first signed. Like, ultra-hot. Now after one crap season you’ve done a complete 180.

        Fickle.

          • BringtheFire 2.0

            Not aggressive. Just…sometimes…words matter, dude. What’s said on a blog, in a speech…it all matters. It all has an effect whether people believe it or not.

        • BlueMoonNigel

          Yes, I was all in when Tre signed Neal. I loved the “go big or go home” gusto Tre showed in making the move. It was bold and daring and so unlike the Flames. I also said that even if the deal proved a bust, I would not hold it against Tre because it was the kind of move that looked exactly what this sluggish team needed to punch it up.

          I saw almost nothing from Neal all season long and in his four playoff games. Frankly, his play was shocking. What was most disturbing was his slowness and his apparent lack of effort. Maybe he did fall off the cliff between last June and October.

          Neal not being able to keep up with the Avs in the playoffs was pitiful. Watching the other clubs in the playoffs, the speed of the game has passed Neal. He certainly cannot play on either of the top 2 lines here, and he is too expensive to be a bottom 6.

          I very much hope Tre can move Neal along ASAP, but I am not holding my breath. There is just too much money involved. I am extremely doubtful that Neal will return to his days as a sure-fire 20+ goal scorer. That is just how bad he was this season. He absolutely killed my hope in him, so I’d be happy to see the back of him, but in no way am I going to hold the signing against Tre. He took a big gamble and he lost.

          • redwhiteblack

            The eye test is not good. I totally agree he seems slow. Can’t have a repeat of that. We need solutions to compete post season. I don’t see Neil as part of the solution. Doubt anyone does.

  • SeanCharles

    The problem I have with the idea of giving Neal another season here is I want Gaudreau, Monahan, Lindholm, Tkachuk, Backlund, Bennett, Mangiapane, Ryan, Hathaway and Dube as regulars in the lineup for next season. If Jankowski is retained as well, who I like but I am also concerned about his 5v5 metrics, that is already 11 players and I think we need at least one new top 6 forward and swap out Frolik. This would bring the number to 12 not including Neal.

    I just don’t know where he fits. I never liked the signing and the only thing that shocks me is how quickly he started to suck. I knew we would regret this signing but I figured we would get at least 1-2 good seasons out of him before he fell off a cliff.

    My spider senses (aka me yelling to the heavens in anger) went off when I heard about the Neal signing the same way they did when Tre signed Raymond and Brouwer. You just knew it was a bad idea given their ages, salaries, terms and expectations.

    I hope he is moved because there just isn’t room for him, for example (don’t focus on the lines ppl are on):

    Gaudreau-Monahan-new player
    Tkachuk-Lindholm-Mangiapane
    Dube-Backlund-Bennett
    Jankowski-Ryan-Hathaway

    Where does he fit in?