James Neal has dealt with a variety of injuries over his NHL career. Recovering from a knee, ankle, shoulder or toe injury isn’t ideal, but those were much different than how he had to deal with COVID. He battled it for over a month, but he’s healthy again and excited to return to the lineup.
“I feel good,” said an upbeat Neal over the phone after practice. “Any hockey player would say they aren’t in game shape until they get in a few games, but I feel good. I had some good practices working with Wise (Brian Wiseman), Gully (Glen Gulutzan) and the taxi squad.”
Neal is thankful to be back on the ice and around his teammates. His battle with COVID started before he arrived in Edmonton.
“It definitely hit me hard,” he said. “The timing aspect wasn’t good and then the quarantines made it tough physically. I got it (COVID) the day I was leaving (Nashville), so then I had to stay 15 more days in Nashville. Then I had to quarantine again when I got to Edmonton. It was a long time off the ice. Anyone who has had it knows it is a long process. You can go a bit stir crazy.
“I was down (in bed) for the first while, and I didn’t start working out until I got back to Edmonton. I was just making sure I was healthy. I got all my tests figured out and you want to make sure your lungs and your heart are okay. You hope you don’t get it, but when you do you worry about your health. It is no joke. Once I got my health figured out then you can push it as hard as you want. I’ve done that. I’ve worked hard to get back where I am,” said Neal.
Dealing with ankle or toe pain is one thing, but worrying about the long-term health of your heart and lungs is very different. Then you add in the physical toll it takes. Neal didn’t skate for almost a month. He didn’t work out the final few weeks in Nashville because of how hard COVID hit him. And once he started feeling better and started training again, it was more difficult that usual to get back into shape.
“The hardest part was you don’t have any practice time with the group. It is not like coming back from injury where you can practice right away. There are regulations on where you can skate with the guys and where you can’t.
“That has been difficult, but I think everything is a little difficult for everyone in the world, and I’m lucky I am feeling better. It has been a challenged just trying to figure out the best way to get back in the lineup. I feel good now. The doctor gave me the green light a while ago, so now it is about being ready to play. It is a bit tougher to gauge when you aren’t skating with the group, and you are doing things a little differently, but I was just trying to get my legs back and my timing. I did some great work in Edmonton with the guys and I’m looking forward to playing.
“I’m ready to play. I’ve done the work I need to play. For now I’m ready to get in the lineup, and I felt good in practice (yesterday) and I’ve felt good the past week or so. I feel I got my legs back,” said Neal.
I could hear the excitement in his voice when he talked about returning to the lineup. He wouldn’t confirm if he was going to play tonight, but jokingly added, “I’m a good negotiator,” when I asked if he could convince his head coach to play him.
Neal is excited to play, but he was more excited about getting a clean bill of health from the doctor. His lungs and heart are good and during a pandemic that is more important than anything else.
— Neal skated on a line with Devin Shore and Josh Archibald yesterday and he took reps on the first unit powerplay. With limited practice time, it would be odd to have him skate on a line the entire practice and not play tonight. Expect him to make his season debut.
— The Oilers will have to make a roster moves to get him on the roster. Joakim Nygard could be moved to the taxi-squad (he already cleared waivers). The Oilers re-assigned Ryan McLeod to the AHL on Wednesday, but would need to move one of Jujhar Khaira, Patrick Russell, Alan Quine, Evan Bouchard, Dylan Wells and Olivier Rodrigue to the AHL. It likely will be Rodrigue since he is still in isolation after returning from Austria.
— Adding Neal will be good for the powerplay. He has good hands in tight. It gives them a better option to score down low. He might not be as good of a screen as Alex Chiasson, but overall he is a better scorer. I outlined earlier this week how Neal’s quick hands down low were a key to getting the PP off to a good start last season.
— The interesting roster decision will occur when Gaetan Haas is available. Devin Shore has played too well thus far to come out of the lineup, so it would be either Chiasson, Tyler Ennis or William Lagesson who gets placed on waivers. Chiasson’s $2.15m cap hit would be hard for many teams to take on. The Oilers won’t want to lose any of those guys, as depth is more important this year than ever, but unless an injury occurs between now and when Haas is ready to play, they will have to send someone to the AHL.
— It is interesting to look at the Sv% of the starting goalies in the North division. There seems a lot of concern about Koskinen — and yes the Romanov and Matthews goals weren’t great — but look at his numbers compared to the other starters.
— Koskinen has faced 34.2 shots per game, only Demko is higher at 39, and while in games one and three Koskinen allowed five goals, I wouldn’t blame him on many of those. Even with those two games, he is still third in Sv%. He, Markstrom and Murray have played all their team’s games, and I could see him playing the first 10 games, before the second half of a back-to-back against Ottawa on January 31st.
— I don’t think he is in the category of Markstrom or Hellebuyck, or Price when he is playing well, but Koskinen is good enough, if the Oilers play decent defensively, to help you win games. I hear and read more concerns regarding Koskinen than goalies on other Canadian teams. I don’t buy it. He isn’t elite, but he is better than what some of the Oilers’ divisional foes have right now. It is very early, but currently Edmonton has the third best Sv% in the North and they are 13th in the league. You’d like him to eliminate the easy goals like Romanov and Matthews, but overall he has played well. Allowing low danger goals is his biggest weakness. He needs to reduce those, especially in close games. The bigger concern is when will Mike Smith return, or can Troy Grosenick be a serviceable backup, so Koskinen doesn’t get overplayed.
— The Oilers team shooting percentage sits 23rd at 8.07%. It is very early and currently 12 teams have a SH% of 10+ including Florida who is at a ridiculous 17.4%. Last season Tampa Bay led the NHL with a 11.17Sh%. The Oilers finished 4th in the league at 10.62%. They were 13th in the league on 5×5 at 8.43Sh% and were first in the NHL on the PP at 20.27%. This season they sit 17th on 5×5 at 6.90%, but they are 23rd on the PP at 8.57%. You should expect their PP production to improve.
— Auston Matthews left Maple Leafs practice yesterday as he wasn’t feeling well. We will find out this morning if he plays. He was outstanding for the Leafs on Wednesday playing 24:14, registering six shots on goal, six hits and he won 67% of his faceoffs. McDavid played 16:25 at 5×5 and played 12:04 of those minutes against Matthews. We didn’t see the offensive fireworks many were expecting, but both were noticeable. If Matthews can’t play, that is a massive blow for the Leafs and McDavid will benefit. Matthews is so big and strong, and it will be fun to watch him more often this season. The coverage he gets from Toronto is over-the-top, but I don’t blame the player for that. He’s a treat to watch, just like McDavid and Draisaitl.
— Joe Thornton left the game after Josh Archibald hit him along the boards. It wasn’t a dirty or dangerous play, but Thornton left the game immediately and he will be out for some time according to Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe. The Leafs have played two games with only 11 forwards dressed, but in the other three games Nick Robertson played 2:20 before leaving with an injury, and Alex Barbanov only played 4:19 and 5:27 in his two games. They’ve essentially used 11 forwards each game, and Thornton played the 6th most minutes and played a lot with Matthews and Mitch Marner. Expect Zach Hyman to skate opposite Marner, but if Matthews can’t go then Alex Kerfoot is the most likely candidate to play between them. It is confirmed Matthews is out for tonight.
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