NHL on NBCSN: Oilers’ Neal comfortable again in bounce-back season

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Wednesday’s matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and Edmonton Oilers. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Dave Tippett flew to Toronto in August to see a player he coached as a rookie and was now getting the opportunity to do so again a decade later. It was in 2008-09 that the Edmonton Oilers head coach, in his final season with the Dallas Stars, was introduced to a young winger with promise.

James Neal scored 24 goals in his first NHL season, and followed that up with 48 over his next 157 NHL games. He made his mark and let it be known he was a goal scorer at this level, one you can count for at least 20 a year. He did that, consistently, for his first 10 seasons, including hitting 40 while with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12 and 31 in his second year with the Nashville Predators.

The goals kept coming in each of his first four NHL stops, but 2018-19 was clearly the aberration year. After playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, Neal found himself in Calgary uncomfortable. Two straight short summers left his body beat up a bit and didn’t allow him the time for a proper training schedule he felt he needed in order to be ready. It showed in the results.

While the Flames were having success, Neal was struggling. Mightily. In 63 games he only scored seven times and his shooting percentage, which was a career 12.7% entering last season, tumbled down to 5%.

Change was needed and Neal was happy to move on to a new opportunity, thanks to Milan Lucic.

“I think we both just needed a fresh start,” Neal said last week. “I appreciate he had to waive his no-trade clause for us to switch spots. I thank him for that.”

When Tippett met with Neal over the summer, he saw a player who was motivated to erase a forgettable year and a player who had plenty to prove. Through six games, the “real deal” is back to his old self with an NHL-best eight goals.

“I give him credit. He’s come in here, he’s a real energized player, he’s helped our group,” said Tippett. “Not just scoring goals but giving us some juice in the locker room.”

“I’ve scored my whole career,” Neal said after netting four against the New York Islanders last week. “I’ve put pressure on myself to be a goal scorer and wanted that pressure. Last year was a tough year and I wanted a chance prove myself and obviously things worked out in the summer with the trade.”

Motivated, Neal put in another summer training with former NHLer Gary Roberts, who’s become one of the go-to workout gurus for hockey players. The two have worked together since Neal was 15, 

That was the physical part. The on-ice part was a simple change in his positioning. Neal started to rely too much on his shot, feeling his natural scoring ability would succeed more often than not. Last season it clearly didn’t. Neal found himself straying further from the net, leading to low-percentage shot attempts. He focused on what worked in the past: getting to those “dirty” areas of the ice for rebounds, redirects, tip-ins, and higher-percentage shots. That works, especially on the power play, as six of his eight goals so far have come with the man advantage.

“He’s around the net,” said Oilers coach Dave Tippett. “Look where he scores from. He’s around the net and the puck’s finding him.”

Indeed. Look where he scored from. Using IcyData’s shot map data, you can see where the concentration of Neal’s shots have come from dating back to the 2016-17 season, when he netted 23 goals. 

2016-17 Even Strength
2017-18 Even Strength
2018-19 Even Strength

Now we come to this season, and while still early, you can see that Neal is finding his spot — mostly on the power play — and capitalizing.

(L) 2019-20 Even Strength / (R) 2019-20 Power Play

The success on the power play for Neal is a result from all of the extra attention placed on Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid. His left-handed shot, as well as McDavid being a lefty, has opened up space for better opportunities with the man advantage. In Calgary, Neal played a total of 17:49, per Natural Stat Trick, with the Flames’ top power play unit. He’s already up to 21:04 with Oilers after being given the chance due to an illness that sidelined Alex Chiasson at the start of the season.

Neal’s low shooting percentage and history of scoring goals made him an easy bounce-back candidate for this season. He’s in a situation where he’s set up to succeed. Playing for a coach who knows him; sought after by an organization that had confidence in him; and getting the opportunities to further erase the memory of last season. He needed the change of scenery and as he puts it, he’s having fun playing hockey again.

“That’s why we got him,” said Draisaitl. “Nealer’s a goal scorer and he’s done that so far. It’s great to see.”

Kathryn Tappen will host NHL Live on Wednesday with analysts Patrick Sharp, Roenick and NHL insider Bob McKenzie. Chris Cuthbert and Ray Ferraro will have the call of Flyers-Oilers from Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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