104James Neal
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

FlamesNation player evaluation: James Neal

To cap off an aggressive off-season of change, Brad Treliving signed James Neal, one of the NHL’s consistent 20 goal scorers. For a team that suffered from a lack of right wing depth, power play scoring, bottom six scoring, scoring in general, and rigidity in the lineup in 2017-18, Neal was signed to help with those issues. Ideally, he could play up and down the lineup, rejuvenate the power play, and chip in when others hit cold streaks.

The Flames got, uh, none of that.

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2018-19 season summary

It was disappointing.

Games Played Goals Assists Points TOI/GP 5v5 CF% 5v5 CFrel% OZS% PDO
63 7 12 19 14:57 50.58% -3.20% 53.32 0.996

Neal posted career worsts in nearly every category, hitting lows for ice time, goals, assists, points, CF%, and CFrel%. Rates wise, his CF/60 (56.9) was the fourth lowest in his career, and his CA/60 (55.6) was the fourth highest he’s ever seen. Relative to the rest of the forwards, Neal found himself at the bottom in most categories, only ahead of Garnet Hathaway and Dillon Dube in most cases.

The only redeeming stat (if you can call it that) is his shooting percentage, which was a dismal 4.96%, way below his career average of 11.6%. Adjusting for a normal Neal SH%, and you get 16 goals. Slightly better, but still a bit below expectation. However, none of his other stats are pointing the right way, which suggests that his 20 goal days are starting to gain distance in the rear-view mirrors.

One of many issues beleaguering Neal was that he never really fit anywhere in the lineup. He spent most of his time with Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett, two players who are still trying to put it all together: a less than ideal situation for a player who’s always needed a setup man. Neal received some spins on the first line, but never gelled as well with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau as Elias Lindholm did. He also took a few shifts on the second line with Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund, but couldn’t handle the workloads they usually faced. Ditto with Derek Ryan, who spent a lot of time in the defensive zone.

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Units 5v5 TOI 5v5 CF% with Neal Teammates’ 5v5 CF% without Neal
Gaudreau-Monahan 73:46 46.48% 54.36%
Tkachuk-Backlund 75:49 53.57% 57.36%
Bennett-Jankowski 153:24 50.98% 53.13%
Ryan 146:12 50% 55.72%

With no clearly defined spot in the lineup, it was tough for Neal to make an impression, but he also didn’t do much to help his case. I’ve covered a lot on his lacking offensive production, but his defensive work was also less than impressive, mostly lazy. When he was noticeable on the ice, it was often for the wrong reasons. It was hard to justify giving Neal a top six shot when everyone else was producing and he didn’t look deserving of the opportunities.

Neal also received some second unit power play time, picking up six points in 140 minutes of action. Again, no real impression.

Compared to last season

Neal was a Vegas Golden Knight last season, helping lead the rag-tag group of misfits to the Stanley Cup finals in their expansion year. He mostly played second line minutes with Eric Haula and David Perron.

Needless to say, he couldn’t find the same magic in Calgary. Part of that has to do with him not playing with two 50 point players, part of that has to do with him just not being as good.

The most pronounced drop off is in his on-ice shooting metrics. While his Corsi numbers (all shot attempts) for per 60 dropped a touch from 57.39 to 56.9, his Fenwick for (unblocked shot attempts) dropped from 42.21 to 40.84, and his shots for (uh, shots) dropped from 30.24 to 27.76. Individually, he took one fewer shot per hour (9.43 to 8.26) and attempted two fewer shots (16.99 to 14.38) at 5v5.

It may not even have anything to do with teammates. In Vegas, his WOWY stats reveal that he wasn’t a significant drag on any of his. teammates  In fact, some of his teammates actually benefited from his presence. In Calgary, nearly everyone was better away from Neal.

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Really, there’s no other explanation to Neal’s decline between this season and last other than “he was good and now he’s bad.”

What about next season?

It’s going to be a long, rumour-filled offseason for Neal, as is standard fare for extreme disappointments.

A move is unlikely. A buyout this early into his contract will probably not be considered due to the long term impact ($1.916M over the next eight seasons), and a trade is certainly welcome but will also probably not materialize. If we’ve learned anything from the Troy Brouwer experience, it’s that teams won’t take your expensive mistakes.

Optimistically, this past season was just an extremely protracted cold streak. While you should always be cautious with players over 30, Neal’s career history didn’t really suggest a drop-off this dramatic this quickly, and that low shooting percentage won’t last forever. If he can get back on track the Flames might forgive whatever happened this season.

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Pessimistically, he’s turning 32 and not getting younger. I lean this way.

2018-19 player evaluations

#4 Rasmus Andersson | #5 Mark Giordano | #7 TJ Brodie | #8 Juuso Valimaki | #10 Derek Ryan | #11 Mikael Backlund | #13 Johnny Gaudreau

  • Jobu

    Brouwer 2.0 – A huge gamble on Tre’s part that so far has not paid off. And a massive overpay.

    In Jobu’s eyes he has one off-season to turn himself around and get in the best shape of his life.

    • deantheraven

      That will be the plan. In the exit interviews, getting into better shape in a long off season was one of the two main points both Neal and Mgmt discussed (out loud). The other was a trade.
      I’m betting both sides are willing to wait until training camp/preseason before any conclusions are drawn regarding Neal’s future in the NHL. That said, if I were GM, I’d dangle his name in any package deal proposal.
      I’m old, and sentimental, and I’d like to see him get another chance to earn the salary he signed for and end his career after a 3 less ignominious seasons. Where I’m torn is whether or not it should be in Calgary.

  • Heeeeere’s Johnny

    Here’s what I think the real story is. James Neal is in love with the Golden Knights. He accepted the Flames contract and decided to suck on purpose just to create 5 years of salary cap pain and do damage to a competitor to his beloved Knights. Not only is he laughing all the way to the bank with his Flames financial fodder, he is secretly being paid on the side by Bill Foley to continue to suck. That’s my theory … any other conspiracists out there with another story?

    • The GREAT WW

      Ryan Reaves is the one laughing; he got Neal off his team and at the same time created cap space for his own contract…….Reaves played that brilliantly!!!!


  • withachance

    hindsight truly is a blessing. Reading the articles on here, I think a majority of fans, media, and management around the league thought bringing in a career 20G, 60pt scorer with oodles of playoff experience for a relatively green team is a no brainer. I think a lot of things went wrong though:

    1. Neal got entitled. He thought he’d able to walk into the team and be a scoring machine. he wasnt.
    2. BP surprised everyone and didn’t start with Neal on the 1st line. Lindholm exploded and there was no way anyone could justify splitting the top line. Neal never got a look with Johnny again.
    3. Lack of chemistry, puck luck and defined role. That all led to an obvious lack of drive from Neal.

    In my mind, he’s got the offseason to reset his mindset, light a fire under himself and come back to earn everything.

    • withachance

      To clarify: I’m not saying the signing was bad. No one could’ve predicted exactly how bad this went for Neal. I was ecstatic when they signed him, he was quite honestly a perfect fit on paper. Just so many different factors came into play for his down season.

      I dont think he’s done for good, but he will be with the Flames if he still has the same gimme attitude in the new season

      • deantheraven

        I don’t know if any of us outside the Flames can say he feels/felt entitled. I can say that what his teammates and the coaches and management said throughout the season described a guy who was liked by all.
        His frustration showed on the bench, but who’s to say if it was borne of BP’s deployment choices or his own performance?
        He didn’t publicly speak about his usage, only his production, and at the end of the year he sounded like Jobu and others who see this off season as a last chance to return to form.
        So… If’s:
        If he gets enough rest/rehab, he’ll come to camp in better shape and show the value that was expected when he signed.
        If he trains hard and comes into camp in top physical condition,
        if he works on his foot speed (read: improves it significantly),
        if he finds chemistry with players that can help his offense,
        James Neal might be still be an impact player.
        If not, maybe there’s another org that needs cap and is willing to take a chance on a bounce back year.
        Or he’ll retire.

      • Rudy27

        No. I think there was some amount of entitlement. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if part of the sales pitch to move to Calgary was the likelihood he would be the new right winger on the 1st line. Dropping down to 3rd line must have been a blow to his ego.

        • Joel Ottos Jock

          Of course that was part of the sales pitch. Why else would he choose Calgary over other markets that are warmer, less taxes, and better chance of winning? Let’s say you’re a journeyman electrician, and company a offers you 20% over the going rate, 4 day work weeks, a company truck, etc but when you get there they dont give you what they promised. Does that make you entitled? No.

      • Porcupine at a balloon party

        With the exception to point 2 being that Neal got looks with Johnny and Monahan after almost every single penalty kill. Not sure he got more than a couple points in that bump up shift role

    • Luter 1

      He’s done don’t kid yourself. This guy was so lost on the ice last year it was painful to watch. He got some looks around the net but was so slow to get shots off it was laughable. He can get in as best shape as he wants but he still can’t stay up to the speed and will refuse to do any dirty work. He’s done!

  • Flamesforever

    I get why everyone just craps on the guy, but we aren’t making it any easier. I for one am willing to give Neal a second chance next year. He needs a clearly defined roll on the team in order to succeed. Starting with playing with a better centre (Ryan).

    • Jobu

      Starting with laying off the breakfast sandwiches and mini cheesecakes.
      But agreed – a second chance is warranted, but THATS IT. If he blows next year, then he just plain blows.

  • Joel Ottos Jock

    James Nealnis a perfect example of a player who was misused, and not played with the right players. Part of James’ disappointing season falls on Bill Peter’s and Brad Trevling. Neal, when being pursued as a free agent was told he would get to play with Johnny. Well Peter’s thought it was better to play Lindholm there. Neal does not drive play, and putting him on a third line with Janko and Bennett? Bad coaching. He was set up to fail.

        • Rudy27

          Granted, the coach could have given him a longer look on the 1st line, but fully understandable with the chemistry Lindholm had on that line that BT stayed with that trio. I wasn’t suggesting trying to have Neal on the checking line (QB reference). I was just making the point that the 2nd line wasn’t an option and therefore the 3rd line was the only other choice.

        • Flames fan since 83

          He had many opportunities. Many tries on the PP and nothing to show.
          Later in the season, Neal got every first shift with Johnny and Money after every Penalty Kill and nothing to show. Not even good scoring chances or even sustained play in the O Zone.
          Joel, I usually agree or disagree. But in this case, your dead wrong. Neal should NOT have been given the chances he did receive. But he got the benefit of doubt because of his huge contract. He should have been in the press box or sent to Stockton. So don’t say he didn’t get a chance. Dumbest statement of the year!

          • Joel Ottos Jock

            POP!! That was the sound of Flames fan since 83 removing his head from ass. 1 shift after every PK and didnt get much done..hmmm..that sounds like a lot of time to be able to create chemistry. Doesnt sound like you played the game. Not only is it hard to create chemistry, but it’s also in his head that he doesnt get the opportunity. If that’s opportunity, the Flames should move on from this whole team outside of bennet, andersson, and maybe Ryan based on their playoff performance. They were given an opportunity as you said..wow..I really hope you rethink your moronic statement.

        • Did you watch any games? What a ridiculous statement. No chance? First, he was given MANY chances to play on first and second lines as well as the powerplay. All of Calgary (including Peters) was cheering for him every time he played on the pp. “Maybe this will get him on track”. Nope. If you watched, you may have noticed that he made Monahan look fast. Second, he did seem entitled. From what I saw with him, he called out others for messing up when the play did nothing but die on his stick. I was a big fan of the signing. It seemed like a no-brainer with a consistent 20 goal scorer right wing that was a real competitor and showed up big time for the playoffs. Face reality, he was terrible at all aspects of his game and blaming the coach or other players is a loser’s mentality. I sure hope he shows up next season taking more responsibility for his game that you want to give him a pass for.

          • Joel Ottos Jock

            No he wasnt. Lindholm was given the opportunity. Being put on a line with Backlund isnt exactly an opportunity. The PP, he wasnt put in a spot to succeed and that didnt last long. I did watch every home game from my seats and almost every away game. James Neal was under utilized. Saying he was entitled because he called out other players, seems like a leader to me. Sometimes coclaches strategies do not work for certain players, but to attack his integrity and effort..get bent

          • Get bent..classy. A leader? Who listens to a guy that can’t get up and down the ice without coasting 3/4 of it? Not to mention he is brand new to the team. How about proving yourself before you open your mouth? You seem to be one of the (very small) minority that has blinders on to his effort. Best of luck with that. Keep searching for reasons that he sucked. Maybe the coach just hates him. Anyone else you want to blame for his crap season besides Neal?

          • Joel Ottos Jock

            Not saying Neal isnt responsible. He is. Just didnt help that he was promised something to come to Calgary and not given it. This is my biggest issue. Not saying he sidnt have a disappointing season, but it was expected when Lindjolm stuck on the top line. Calgary doesnt have another forward who can drive play and make a guy like Neal look real good. To me it would be like putting JG on the PK and being upset that he is no good at it. I do differ than the majority. That doesnt make me right nor wrong. Just that I have a different perspective than you. I’m not classy..just cannot use my real language on here..good discussion though sweetheart.

  • The GREAT WW

    I was just as excited as anyone when we signed Neal.
    Then when I saw him skate for the first time I thought I was watching Jagr in his last year.
    I knew we were in big trouble…


    • Beer League Coach

      When he signed with Flames my son in law who lives in Reno told me that Neal would score the Cup winning goal for Flames this year. I got really ex.cited and even defended Neal for the first half of the season. Then I woke up and realized that he was just another “declining asset” as a hockey player. Flames have no choice but to give him another chance next fall. He should be on a very short leash and if he doesn’t produce immediately he should get a one way ticket to Siberia. Personally, I hope he shows up in camp in the worst shape of his life. That could give Flames the opportunity to void his contract and save themselves the big expense of a buy out or retained salary if some other team would be foolish enough to take a chance on him.

    • redwhiteblack

      When the signing happened I thought about the 2 deep playoff runs, his age and it seemed like was a formula for a decline. Seems it was. How do GMs take these risks without mitigation?

      • withachance

        The current structure doesnt really have any ways for GMs to mitigate without reprecussions. Also there isnt a lot of good GMs in the league, so bad GMs set precedents that the other GMs basically have to abide to or risk losing their man

  • Beer League Coach

    I have stated a couple of times on this site that Flames should limit the length of a contract to 3 years or less for any veteran 29 years old or older. This would prevent them from signing contracts as bad as the Brouwer and Neal deals. Some commenters would say that prevents them from signing any vets. I say if they won’t sign unless they get a longer contract you just let them walk. Better to lose one vet who could help the team than to sign a bunch of them that all turn into albatross contracts.

          • Beer League Coach

            I haven’t coached anywhere since 1985. From 1980 to 85 my team won the championship twice and lost once in the finals. 4th year my top 2 scorers went down with knee injuries. They were 1st & 3rd in league scoring the previous year. 5th year was a bad year for the economy here and I had to leave the team and go out of town for work. The team still made the playoffs but lost in first round. I found from personal experience that it is better to have a bunch of guys with a little less talent and a strong work ethic than a bunch of really talented players who thought they only had to show up and go for a skate to win a game. Work ethic AND talent is great. If you only have one of those attributes give me the work ethic.

          • Joel Ottos Jock

            So you’re saying Neal doesnt have work ethic? Cute story, but it really has no relevance. Neal has work ethic otherwise he would not be in the show.

    • withachance

      Its not losing one vet. Its losing all vets. There are 30 other teams in the league you’re competing with that are willing to do something you’re not. What you’re proposing would hamstring the team before the pucks even dropped

    • Jimmyhaggis

      These old FA signings should be incentive driven, play well get paid well, play crappie get paid crappie. 5 years is way too long for a guy playing in his declining years. BT should be taking some heat for doing this twice.

  • Off the wall

    I at least give Peters’ credit for benching Neal in game #5 in the playoffs.

    I don’t understand how Neal believed he warranted more ice time. Why on earth would you ask the coach for more playing time, if the (numbers)evidence suggest you are among the worst players on the team?

    I believe Neal is a proud player. Hopefully, he recognizes he has to put in a regimented offseason to compete in this league.

    If not, we’ll see more of the same. Double- chin, pearly white teeth player, with an old Volkswagen motor trying to skate.

    I really hope he;
    1. Asks for a trade or
    2. Returns with 15 pounds shaved off his chin and a more lean and mean streak.

    Sorry Neal, but you know it’s true. We don’t need another year of whatever you were doing this season!

    • Beer League Coach

      I, too, hope that he has an attitude adjustment over the summer. If he doesn’t, hello Siberia. If he asks for a trade we would come out ahead if all we get back is a gallon of Gatorade (purple or any other colour) and we have room for another player and contract on the 50 contract list.

    • withachance

      He is a proud player, hence why he felt he was warranted a certain amount of respect. Clearly that wasnt true and Im happy the team lived up to their own motto.

      He needs to come back and earn his place beside Johnny, because I do think thats where he will have the most amount of success, or else he’s done.

      • Rudy27

        Maybe playing regularly on Johnny’s line would get him back to form. But you can’t do that with Monny as center or you’ll have two players that can’t keep up to Johnny and a whole line of week defensive players.

        • withachance

          New center signing (or maybe lindy) for Johnny and Neal
          Move Monahan with Tkachuk who are both slower in foot speed (maybe put Bennett on RW? or a top 6 RW signing – Shaw would be good)
          Backs on the 3rd with Dube and Janko (or trade him)
          Ryan centering 4th line with Mangi

  • Puck Head

    One thing he had going against him was he skated like a big stuffed sack of sh!t with an injured hip. Most guys who are having off nights just blend in and you don’t even realize they’re playing. I couldn’t help but notice Neal as soon as his lumbering frame stepped onto the ice. It was painful to watch him attempt to keep up while bobbling the puck and making wide slow turns. Really slow acceleration to boot.

    I was also excited when we signed the guy. I guess we’ll see what kind of compete he has in him when the season starts. Hopefully he can pull himself together and salvage his career. If he can turn things around it would feel like found money.

    • Jobu

      Its not just that the guy can’t skate. How often did you see him just coasting around on what little momentum he mustered? You gotta keep those feet moving if you wanna stay in the play.

      If he does this next year then maybe we’ll see some better results.

  • BendingCorners

    Alex Chiasson had a better year than James Neal.
    The Flames have plenty of bottom-six forwards and more on the way.
    Buy out Neal and use the recovered cap space to improve the roster.

      • Puck Head

        I read an article yesterday about Lucic and the author used comparables to determine that some teams may be willing to pay $3M/season for him with the Oil paying the other $3M.

        What would Neal be worth on the market if the Flames retained salary? If it meant we could free up $3M for a replacement it could be worth it? I’m not sure if he has any value at this point with such a long term remaining on his contract.

      • BendingCorners

        The terrible part was signing him in the first place. If Neal had performed to expectation the contract would have been fine, but mid-level scorers don’t age well.
        The only question now is how to minimize the damage. Somebody else suggested a trade with salary retained and I admit that could work too, and would save the four-year hangover that a buyout brings. But he is done as a top-six player and if he isn’t traded then a buyout at least frees up 3.8MM each year during what most posters seem to regard as the Flames’ best window for winning a Cup. Unfortunate but I believe necessary.

        • 31 Thoughts With Morgan Freeman

          I’m with you BendingCorners. I’m of the opinion that it’s bad cap management to keep a boat anchor on your roster when you could replace him with a better player at entry level salary and open up opportunities for your prospects to prove themselves. Whether by a trade with retained salary or buyout, it’s best to admit you made a bad signing and move on than it is to drag your team down because you don’t want to eat up cap space on a guy who’s no longer on your team. He’s eating up way more cap space and a roster spot by keeping him here.

  • Jobu

    That picture kind of says it all. LOL.
    Neal well behind the player with the puck, looking completely out of the play, feet not moving.

    Shape up or ship out, sir.

  • Gus Fring

    Neal just isn’t a fit on this team he needs to play with a team up man. He cant drive the play he needs to be fed the puck in a decent scoring chance to capitalize. Most of his goals scored this year were S*#t pucks bouncing off his skates his chin pads his rear end! I don think one of his goals were scored off the rush or on a one timer etc… I think we have to find a way to trade bad contract for bad contract he just isn’t a fit on this team. We have no playmaking centres on this team so who was he really going to pair with?? I would try trading him back to Nashville the fans there want to get rid of Turris as he has been a disappointment there as well. Neal had good numbers in Nashville. It would be a good change of scenery for both players! IMO

  • CowboyBob

    No effort for the first half of season, a little bit more effort towards the end. At the end of the day just a horrible skater, can’t get to the puck in time, can’t keep up to the play. Bad skaters only get worse as they age. Member of the ‘bad skater club’ with Tkachuk, Monahan and Fantenburg.

  • Anyone remember our commentators praising Neal somewhere around the 60th game of the season on having his BEST game being a Flame? The only thing he actually did decently on a few shifts was fore-check and keep the puck deep for extended periods of time. That was how low the bar got for this guy. “He is really engaged tonight!” That guy better wake up and show some integrity. I would feel crappy if I was hired to do a job and guaranteed a huge paycheck and then just do a garbage job because I’m already getting paid. Maybe this is not his thought process but I hope he gets it.

    • Gus Fring

      Sad part is a lot of these guys don’t care. I believe the comment Bobby Ryan said was I didn’t put a gun to anyone’s head to offer me that kind of money. Do I feel bad? Not at all. I think that is even on a you tube video. Smh

  • Chucky

    Jankowski has two seasons in the league, the first tied to Brouwer the boat anchor and the second with lazy James Neal. Bennett has four seasons and three of them with the aforementioned performance killers. Maybe next season these two young guys could catch a break and not get the failure of the year as a line-mate and we can see what they are made of rather that how much excess baggage they can carry.

    • Luter 1

      Yeah we worry about where Neal gets to play and then talk of trading Bennett and dumping Jankowski when they’ve played with stiffs all their career. Put Benny on the number one line (not saying he’s a number one) and he’d get 70 points and everyone on here that looks at nothing but points to rate players would say to give him 6 million!
      Every other player dreads getting the anchor put on their line guaranteed and Neal is the ultimate anchor.

  • The Beej

    Calgary should get on the phone to Ottawa. They have oodles of cap space.

    We could retain salary, include a prospect and basically give away Neal. Say we retain just 1.25-1.5 m.

    A team could be interested in obtaining Neal for only 4.25 or 4.5 m per year if they think this year is just an aberration. We might have to include a prospect but I think he is moveable without having to do anything too silly.

    Someone will have to play in Ottawa. No one is going to sign there with the drama that goes on there. From Ottawas perspective if you can get Neal for 4.5m, he probably plays in their top 6, and a prospect for only say a 4th or 5th round pick. From Ottawas perspective could be tempting.