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Sample size be damned, James Neal's sizzling start matters

Neal obviously won't maintain his 164-goal pace. But his amazing Oilers debut isn't a total fluke, because his deployment is night-and-day different from what it was in Calgary.

The sample size is minuscule. But the sample sure does look like vintage James Neal so far. That’s what the eyes told us last night.

His first goal on Semyon Varlamov: a quick snapshot. The second: a quick side-door shot on the power play. The third: a deft redirection on a one-timed pass from Leon Draisaitl. The fourth, on Thomas Greiss: five-hole on a quick bad-angle shot almost at the goal line. Neal’s third game as an Edmonton Oiler yielded the first four-goal game of his career, which is in its 12th season.

Add up all the goals the right winger scored in Edmonton’s 5-2 road win over the New York Islanders, and the puck was only on his stick for a second or two, total. He sure looked like the James Neal who topped 20 goals in each of his first 10 seasons and averaged 31 goals per 82 games over that stretch. More importantly, with an NHL-best six goals in these three magical games, all Oilers victories, he’s looked nothing like the James Neal who flopped so miserably in Calgary last season, managing seven goals in 63 games.

It’s obviously early. Neal has scored on an incredible 42.9 percent of his shots. But given he’s just two goals away from beating last year’s total already, it’s safe to say his body of work as an Edmonton Oiler will quickly best his Calgary resume. What’s changed?

Playing time is the first place to look. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation, of course, as anyone could argue his role was small in Calgary because he didn’t earn it. But, whatever the reason, we know for a fact Neal played far less than he ever had, and with poorer linemate quality, under coach Bill Peters in Calgary. Neal played 14:57 per night, easily the lowest average ice time of his career and almost three minutes lower than the 17:52 he averaged in his first 10 seasons. His most common 5-on-5 linemates were third-liners Mark Jankowski (336:06) and Sam Bennett (247:03). Neal saw far less time with the Flames’ top offensive stars, Johnny Gaudreau (106:10), Matthew Tkachuk (101:43) and Sean Monahan (98:01). During Neal's three seasons and change as a Pittsburgh Penguin, his most common 5-on-5 linemates were Evgeni Malkin and Chris Kunitz. Across three seasons as a Nashville Predator: Filip Forsberg and Calle Jarnkrok. So Neal’s linemate quality as a Flame was lower than what he was used to.

Before joining the Flames, Neal was an established power-play threat. He scored 71 times with the man advantage over his first 10 seasons, good for 21st in the league. He averaged 2:57 per game on the power play during that decade, placing him 69th among 743 forwards who logged at least 100 games over that span. That’s the 91st percentile of power-play usage.

As a Flame last season, Neal played 2:21 per game on the power play, placing him 138th among 500 forwards who played at least 10 games – putting Neal in the 72nd percentile of power-play usage. He was a second-unit guy at the best of times for Calgary.

Now let’s look at Neal’s usage in his limited Edmonton sample. The ice time is nice and high so far at 18:13 per game. He hasn’t averaged that much since 2015-16. Neal leads the league with four power-play goals and has played a whopping 4:32 with the extra man so far. That actual number means nothing this early, but what matters is Neal getting first-unit deployment alongside Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom.

Neal’s most common even-strength linemates through three games are Nugent-Hopkins and Joakim Nygard. It’s not McDavid and Draisaitl, but it’s a second-line assignment, which is better than what Neal saw in Calgary.

The bottom line: don’t immediately laugh off the three-game sample size when you look at Neal’s incredible start. Of course he will regress, but we’re seeing a significant change in his usage year over year, and it's working, so there's little reason to change it at the moment. The Oilers and coach Dave Tippett have figured out the right way to maximize Neal’s talents: play him in offensive situations and feed him with pucks around the net on the power play, allowing him to use his quick hands for jam plays and deflections.

Neal is 32, so he’s unlikely to challenge his career high of 41 goals, but it’s safe to say he’s relevant again. Last season looks like an anomaly, not a career death knell.

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