On New Year’s eve, James Neal scored a hat-trick, giving him 19 goals on the season.
It looked like Neal was going to blow past the 20-goal plateau for the 11th time in his career and even reach the 30-goal plateau for the first time since the 2015-16 season when he was a member of the Nashville Predators.
He hasn’t scored a goal since.
In January, Neal suffered a foot injury and it noticeably hampered his play for a few games before he was finally placed on the Injured Reserve at the end of the month. He would miss all of February before returning to the lineup for a few games in March. The season, of course, got paused later that month.
Now, after having a few months to rest, the Oilers will finally have a fully healthy Neal for the first time since the first half of the season. That’ll be a big boost to the team’s offensive depth.
“The break gave me a chance to heal, ankle injuries, hand, those nag at you quite a bit. I did everything I could to get back when I did,” Neal told Jim Matheson. “I don’t think the body’s been this healthy or this refreshed ever going into the playoffs. I think a lot of guys around the league can say that.”
Neal was a big reason why the Oilers came flying out of the gate this season. He scored seven goals in Edmonton’s first four games, all of which were wins. Though his absurd pace would slow down after the first few games, Neal remained an important depth contributor to the Oilers throughout the first few months of the season.
Edmonton’s lineup has changed quite a bit since Neal buried that hat-trick against the Rangers. Kailer Yamamoto, who made his season debut that night, has entrenched himself in the top-six. The team also added Tyler Ennis and Andreas Athanasiou ahead of the trade deadline, giving themselves additional depth up front.
At the beginning of the season, before the emergence of Yamamoto and the acquisition of Ennis and Athanasiou, Neal was a mainstay in a top-six role for the Oilers. Now that the team has massively increased its depth on the wings, that won’t be the case when Edmonton kicks off their playoff run against the Chicago Blackhawks in a couple of weeks.
And that isn’t a bad thing.
While Neal scored a lot of goals for the Oilers this year, his five-on-five play left quite a bit to be desired. He put up solid shot metrics, but the Oilers got outscored 33-to-23 when he was on the ice at five-on-five. 12 of Neal’s 19 goals this season came while on the man advantage.
Neal will see plenty of power-play time this summer for the Oilers, which is an area where he thrives and can help the team in a major way. He also won’t have to play a major role at five-on-five. Instead, Neal fits best on the fourth line, along with Jujhar Khaira and Alex Chiasson, a group that can play physically and chip in offensively while playing limited minutes.
Having a rested and healthy Neal on a sheltered line is a nice luxury for the Oilers to have. He boasts a tremendous amount of playoff experience, with 104 career playoff games over his career and back-to-back Stanley Cup Final runs with Nashville and Vegas in 207 and 2018, and he’s proved this year that he can still be a lethal contributor on the power-play.
It’ll be great to see The Real Deal back at his best.