At times, James Neal can seem like a one-dimensional player. Unfortunately for the Flames – and certainly to Neal’s frustration – we haven’t really seen much of his vaunted goal-scoring in Calgary.
Through 13 games, Neal only has two goals and one assist for three points. Things have been especially lousy lately, as the 31-year-old only has one point in his last nine games. To rub a little salt in his wounds, Neal’s only point was the lone goal as the Penguins shellacked the Flames by the unreal score of 9-1.
It’s a bit mind-blowing to contrast this start with the way he began last season. To jog your memory: Neal somehow scored the game-winning goal in three straight games, opening his short Vegas Golden Knights career with a four-game goal streak (six tallies during that dizzying run).
How concerned should the Flames be about Neal’s slow start? Let’s consider some of the factors.
Age of decline?
The Flames likely knew that Neal’s contract is risky, at least when it comes to giving a 31-year-old winger such term. Much like with Milan Lucic and the Oilers, the struggles have come a lot sooner than expected, though.
Generally speaking, snipers tend to hit the aging curve the hardest, so Calgary might just need to accept diminishing returns.
That said, it’s unlikely that Neal will struggle this much, at least for the remainder of 2018-19.
As you’d expect with a goal-scorer who isn’t scoring goals, Neal’s not getting a lot of bounces. His two goals in 13 games have come from 33 shots on goal, translating to a 6.1 shooting percentage. To put it mildly, that poor shooting luck is out of the ordinary for a winger who enjoyed a 12.4 shooting percentage last season, and has connected on 12 percent for his career.
So, yeah, expect Neal to rebound. That said, will he rebound enough for the Flames not to regret committing to him for five years at $5.75 million per season, even now? It could be tough because …
Odd man out
Neal’s not exactly enjoying the most fruitful opportunities to score.
As you can see from these Natural Stat Trick teammates numbers, Sam Bennett is far and away his most common linemate, while those two have been joined by the not-exactly-imposing likes of Mark Jankowski. With 26 points during each of his last seasons (despite missing just one game during that span), Bennett continues to be an enigma for Calgary.
(Well, he’s either an enigma, or the puzzle’s been solved and he’s just not very good.)
The thing is, barring injuries, a third-line role honestly makes a lot of sense.
Elias Lindholm has been dynamite with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Even if Lindholm and Neal end up being equally effective, Neal would give that top trio three left-handed shots, while Lindholm brings versatility as a righty.
Perhaps there could eventually be some headway on the second line, as Michael Frolik‘s somehow been a healthy scratch this season. That’s not really an optimal situation, however, as Frolik combines with Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund to form the puck-hogging “3M Line.” Maybe Neal’s finishing touch would add a new wrinkle to Backlund/Tkachuk (for all that trio’s strengths, they tend to suffer from bad puck luck), but it sure feels like messing with a good thing.
There is one area where Neal could conceivably deliver more value: the power play.
So far, Neal’s on the second unit, while the first group goes with Gaudreau, Monahan, Tkachuk, Lindholm, and Mark Giordano. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where Neal might bring added value to a Flames top unit, as he can use his size to screen a goalie. Perhaps just as importantly, Neal isn’t afraid to pull the trigger and unleash his deadly shot, so that could be a solution if Bill Peters diagnoses a problem of over-passing.
It’s honestly pretty impressive that Neal’s always found a way to score at least 20 goals during his first 10 seasons in the NHL. He did it as a rookie, collecting 24. Neal did so even during the season he was shipped to Pittsburgh, when he couldn’t buy a bucket (1 goal on 52 SOG in 20 games after he already had 21 goals in 59 games with Dallas).
Remarkably, Neal even hit that mark during the streak-running, lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, as he generated 21 goals in just 40 games. (Neal sure was prolific alongside Evgeni Malkin, at least before that situation hit an iceberg.)
Injuries, trades, and even partial work stoppages haven’t really kept Neal from scoring goals, so chances are, he’ll get back on track soon. That doesn’t mean it will be as easy as he often makes it look, however.