As the preseason inches closer, as training camps mere days from opening, we as Oilers fans continue to dream big with visions of the 2020 playoffs dancing through our heads. As I’ve looked back at the significant players on the roster who were leaned on heavily last year and how they might perform this year, it’s now necessary to look at some of the newcomers from to the dressing room and how they might contribute to the Oilers’ 2020 playoff hopes. This time, we look at the better half of the Milan Lucic trade: former provincial rival James Neal!
James Neal will score 22 goals this year. Bet @JasonGregor's money on it.
— Baggedmilk – Pre-season Beet writer (@jsbmbaggedmilk) September 4, 2019
Things did not go well for Neal in Southern Alberta. After signing a five-year, $28.75mil contract on July 2 last summer, expectations were high for Neal to add more scoring to an already potent Flames’ roster, playing on the top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. But injuries and apparent friction with head coach Bill Peters led to Neal playing on the third line, eventually culminating in him being scratched before Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Avalanche.
There’s no denying that it was a disastrous first season for Neal in Calgary, with his point total lower than any goal-scoring output he’s ever had. So what do the deeper counts tell us about Neal’s season from hell, was it a matter of bad luck or lack of offensive possession contribution? (Counts at 5v5)
|CF%||GF%||SCF%||HDCF/CA||HDCF%||HDGF/GA||HDGF%||On-Ice SH%||PDO||Off.Zone Starts%|
The Flames’ offence finished tied (with the San Jose Sharks) for second in the league with 289 goals (behind only the juggernaut Tampa Bay Lightning), so it makes sense that a player with less than 10 goals who be drastically separated from the rest of the herd in terms of goals, but even the just the lower Corsi chances, in general, suggest that Neal either wasn’t playing with anyone who could help him contribute offensively, or that he was holding his linemates back.
Neal’s most frequent linemate at 5v5 was Sam Bennett (247:03 TOI together) who has also struggled a bit to find his offensive touch with the Flames, so it could’ve been a factor of two players both unable to bail the other out while they went through an offensive funk.
So how bad was the fall for Neal last season from his previous success? Let’s look at his past five seasons:
Neal’s shooting percentage has been widely discussed, but just as a reminder that other than last season he’s never had a season with a shooting percentage below 10.0%. Notable to go along with his scoring clip is his volume of shots. If you don’t count his lockout-shortened 2012-13 season with the Pittsburgh Penguins– in which were you to extrapolate to Neal only playing in 59 games (his all-time low), he still would’ve had exactly 200 shots– last season was the only time since his rookie season that Neal had less than at least 200 shots. Another important outliner from last season was also his opportunity on the ice. Last year was the only time Neal’s TOI/GM dipped below 15:00; in fact, he’s never averaged less than 17:00 since his rookie season.
Clearly, Neal was in the doghouse with the Flames coaching staff, but is age also a factor in the sudden drop in stats? Well let’s look at how he’s stacked up with the rest of his peers from the 2005 NHL Draft Class:
An abysmally career low in shooting percentage, coupled with a career low in TOI and the least amount of shots in a decade, undoubtedly lead to such a poor offensive season for Neal. With an opportunity to play with either McDavid or Draisaitl will also undoubtedly lead to a spike in both TOI and shot volume, so the opportunity to have a goal-scoring revival is there for the taking.
However, the biggest concern for Neal has to be his health. His 2015-16 with the Predators is the only fully healthy season of his eleven-year career. On a team that is notoriously paper-thin on the wings, even with a comeback season in the 15-20 goal range, a ten-game stretch on the IR could sewer the Oilers’ playoff hopes.
But, the fact of the matter is that things couldn’t possibly be as disappointing for Neal in Edmonton as they were for Lucic. Should he continue his offensive slid, the buyout cost for Neal’s contract is manageable, so that last-ditch option is there. But the plan here is for Neal to be a regular contributor in the top-six, rediscovering his scoring touch and being a boon to the Oilers’ offence and helping lead them to a 2020 playoff run.
In my honest opinion, I think that will be the case. He’ll likely miss his obligatory 10-or-so games, but in the games that he will be in the lineup, he’s going to offer the team a balanced scoring threat that’ll be a very welcome change to a team that relies far too heavily on their top two contributors.