If we would have compiled a list of potential bounce back candidates early last week, James Neal wouldn’t have been on it. Mired near the bottom of the Flames lineup last season and an apparent square-peg-in-a-round-hole type fit for the roster, Neal had a disastrous debut campaign in Calgary and there was little reason to believe he was destined for a rebound. Matter of fact, if anything, he seemed a prime candidate to get the axe by way of a buyout once the second buyout window opened for the Flames.
It’s funny how a move 300 kilometers north can change things, though.
When Neal was traded to the Edmonton Oilers Friday in a surprising swap for Milan Lucic, the narrow view was that it was a trade of like players, not necessarily in terms of style but with regard to how they fared last season. Neal, like Lucic, is a 31-year-old winger who is coming off of the worst campaign of his career. Both were signed to significant contracts – Neal’s five-year deal carries a $5.75-million cap hit and Lucic’s seven-year pact was for $6 million per season – and both failed to live up to the resulting offensive expectations. It was no secret that both players were on the chopping block, and it’s no surprise neither will start next season with the same team with which they ended the past campaign.
But where the two differ – significantly, too – is the upside moving forward, because as Lucic is expected to play much the same role and produce in much the same way as he did in Edmonton, there’s legitimate hope that Neal’s past production in Calgary will be a distant memory once he starts his time with the Oilers. Part of that, no doubt, is the Connor McDavid factor.
Speaking about the trade, Oilers GM Ken Holland made clear that Neal is going to get an opportunity to play in the top-six, saying that the veteran winger is going to get a chance to play with one of Edmonton’s top two pivots. That’s to say that Neal, who spent the majority of his 5-on-5 ice time last season with Mark Jankowski as his pivot, is about to move into a spot alongside one of Connor McDavid or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. And if it’s the former rather than the latter, we might be able to expect big things out of Neal, particularly if that also means a winger partnership with Leon Draisaitl, as well. Remember, playing with Edmonton’s offensive standouts last season helped turn Alex Chiasson, who arrived on a professional tryout after a nine-goal, 18-point season as a fourth-liner with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, into a 22-goal, 38-point top-sixer.
The presence of McDavid and/or Draisaitl as linemates aren’t the only reasons to believe Neal will return to ‘Real Deal’ status, however. Rather, that comes down to a matter of past performance predicting future success.
Across Neal’s 10 seasons in the NHL prior to his ugly campaign in Calgary, he had been one of the league’s most consistent offensive producers. To wit, while his goal and point totals had fluctuated, there hadn’t been a single season in which he failed to score at least 20 times. In fact, heading into the 2018-19 campaign and from 2008-09 on through to 2017-18, Neal ranked 15th in goal-scoring among all NHLers, which put him in the same company as Jonathan Toews, Eric Staal, Zach Parise and Jamie Benn. And true as it might be that his past performance did little to aid him in his seven-goal campaign with the Flames last season, one number that would seem to suggest he’s due for a reversal of fortune is his shooting percentage.
Throughout his career, and leading up to the beginning of last season, Neal had never had a season in which he had shot less than 10 percent. His lowest were two campaigns of 10.4 percent, his highest was 15.4 percent during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season and his 10-year average was 12.1 percent. In Calgary, though, Neal shot a career-low five percent. He was snakebitten at the best of times.
This is all important to note, too, because had Neal remained healthy – he missed 19 games last season – and shot at even his previous career-worst rate, his season would have looked much different on paper. Say he maintained his same shots rate, which was 2.24 per game, over a season in which he played 75 games. That’s 168 shots. Multiply that by a 10.4 shooting percentage and it’s 18 goals. Multiply it by Neal’s 12.1 percent career average and it’s another 20-goal campaign. And considering the minutes he played, a career-low average of 14:57 per game, that would have been a fairly impressive fourth-line season.
Is Neal a lock to return to his 20-goal form? Well, let’s just say they’re not about to add it to a list of guarantees alongside death and taxes. But if there was any Oiler who was bound for a bounce back campaign – and any player in Edmonton who stands to fit the bill as the club’s best off-season acquistion – it’s Neal, who is heading a few hours north of Cowtown with an awful lot to prove.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.