James Neal figures he’s re-invigorated.
One can assume the salivating prospect of playing alongside Connor McDavid would have that sort of effect. For Neal, it could also mean putting behind him a horrible season where he failed to hit double-digit goals for the first time in his career and finished with just 19 points in 63 games.
The 2018-19 season made Neal the biggest bust of last year’s free-agent crop. Despite playing on the team that was tops in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season, the only thing Neal’s game topped was the scrap heap. It got so bad that when the Flames needed a win in Game 5 of Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Neal was parked in the press box as the Flames crashed out of the postseason.
But there’s hope in Edmonton after Ken Holland and the Oilers acquired Neal for Milan Lucic. Hope, because Holland has already done what those previous to him couldn’t: get Lucic out of town. And hope, because as bad as Neal’s season was last year, there’s optimism that he could turn it around this year.
That faith rests in his shooting percentage. Never before had Neal shot below 10 percent in all situations in his career over a full season and never below nine percent in five-on-five situations. Last year, his shooting success was just five percent in all situations and 4.63 percent in five-on-five.
As Willis points out, if that shooting percentage just returns back to the mean, Neal could double his goal total without much extra effort.
Neal’s shot contributions are very good. Using CJ Turtoro’s player comparison tool, you can see just how stark the contrast is between himself and Lucic, who replaces Neal in Calgary.
Take those shot contributions and put them on a line with McDavid and profit?
So there’s it’s a good bet that Neal can contribute. How much so remains to be seen.
He’s still a positive possession player, even during his down year last year (50.58%). Over the past three seasons, he’s been outscored five-on-five, something that hadn’t happened previously since 2008-09. His expected goals were the third-lowest of his career. And he shot just 141 times, the lowest total outside of the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.
Either last season was a sign of things to come or an outlier for a player fully capable of potting 20 goals. At 31, he isn’t a dinosaur by any means.
Shedding Lucic’s no-movement, $6 million a season contract was a win already. And if Neal is on McDavid’s wing, it will be interesting to see how big of a rebound season he can have.
Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck