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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.



  • Off the wall

    Hamonic always showed heart. Even though his first season with the Flames wasn’t what we expected.

    Taking Hanifin under his wings and spending countless hours with him, sitting with him and just getting to know him, showed us Hamonic’s character. He’s a beauty!

    Brouwer was slow, like Neal, but when it came to defending his teammates, Brouwer would get involved, drop the gloves and stick up for the team. Remember the cage he had to wear for months?

    Neal is NONE of those things. He tells Smith to get his head in the game, while being guilty of it himself. Fight? Have you ever seen him fight? Or stick up for a teammate on the ice. Nope, in the playoffs, he went to the bench while a scrum ensued, leaving his players to fend for themselves. Neither Hamonic, nor Brouwer would have done that.

    Bounce back season next year. Sure, but not with the Flames. You can’t pay a guy $5.75M and have him benched for game #5.
    That was the final straw for Peters. He knows these players.
    He also knows Neal.

    Treliving will be moving Neal, because he doesn’t FIT, not because of the unsuccessful season he had.

    Treliving wants our team moving in the right direction. Having Neal in our lineup, is the opposite of the direction we should be heading…

    • Director772

      You are so right about Neal, I saw the same scrum and that was the end of any hope I had for him….well except for the hope we don’t see him in a flames game ever again.

    • freethe flames

      Most of us agree that Neal is a square peg trying to fit into a round hole but the question is “what would we be willing to pay to get rid of square peg” What would we get back? I was all in favour of getting rid of Brouwer but what did we replace him with; Neal, I don’t want that to happen again.

  • buts

    A very reliable source told me Neal banged heads with Peters all year long and I don’t believe Peters is going anywhere. How will training this summer improve the slowest anchor on the flames? After the game 5 scratching and the disappointment shown by Tre I believe Neal is Gone. Give up a prospect retain salary and move on.

    • freethe flames

      I have no doubt your source is reliable. Neal expected to be given a chance to play with Johnny and Monny but BP had decided he would try Lindholm there first(and it worked). After that it became painfully obvious to everyone except Neal and a few of his supporters on this sight that Neal did not have the wheels to play top 6 in BP system. After failing to earn a spot based upon his play and not his reputation Neal floundered.

    • ChinookArchYYC

      I expect the Flames would try to move Neal, but I’m not holding my breath that they’d be successful. Who wants a 7 goal $5.75M player for the next 4 years.
      Get used to James Neal in crimson for the long run.

  • Jimmyhaggis

    Hamonic’s problem was D pairing, Neil’s problem was desire, or lack of. He didn’t seem to fit in with the team from the get go. Sometimes when a guy gets a big guaranteed contract they get content, knowing it’s likely his last one.
    Just hope this is last veteran free agent signing.

    • Luter 1

      He was brought in for two reasons, firstly a top 6 who would play with an edge and secondly as a sniper. I mentioned 15 games into the season this guy was done and somebody commented you don’t lose your 20-30 goal scoring talent over one summer. Well this guy did and no amount of training is going to help this stiff legged poor skater back to a top 6. If he’s not top 6 then he has absolutely no role on this team and his heart, dedication and edge along with sticking up for teammates was non-existent. That attitude doesn’t just change, Neal has no intention of getting his nose dirty, he played two aggressive games and ended up injured. He will be a problem in the dressing room this year, cut your losses, him and Czarnik to Canucks for a bag of pucks.

  • Gus Fring

    Trade Neal to Columbus for Alex Weinberg, He has had 2 bad seasons and has been a healthy scratch for the second half of the year. He isn’t a Torts style of player and is signed for 4 more years as well. He is a 24 year old playmaking center we can use one of those.