One of the questions leading into the NHL trade deadline was whether Edmonton Oilers’ GM Ken Holland could make a deal for a winger, preferably a top-six guy, capable of providing some scoring punch as a complement to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl for the stretch drive and in the playoffs. It didn’t happen.
As unlikely as it seemed back on April 12, a day that landed the Oilers defenceman Dmitry Kulikov but nobody with a proven nose for the net and hands capable of actually doing something about it, is it possible that Holland already had that guy in James Neal? The James Neal laid low recovering from COVID? The guy who has played just 22 games and hasn’t been much of a factor when he has played? The guy exposed to waivers? Yes, that James Neal.
On a night when McDavid, Draisaitl and the rest of the Oilers looked gassed and never really managed to get their legs under them in a 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames in the second of back-to-back games, Neal showed some flashes he might be that guy – emphasis on might. He scored Edmonton’s only goal, could have had another and played with more jump than we’ve seen from him all season. Yes, the bar was set low Thursday. And it goes without saying that one game does not a season make.
At 33 and closing in fast on 34, there’s no question Neal’s best days – he has 10 seasons of 20-or-more goals – are behind him. Neal, acquired for Milan Lucic in a swap of bad contracts, makes too much money at $5.75 million for a player in decline. If the Seattle Kraken want him in the NHL expansion draft, they can have him. All this we know. Long term, Neal is not in the plans, not a significant factor. What about here and now?
It’s been a tough road for Neal this season. After scoring 19 goals in 55 games with the Oilers last season, Neal arrived for training camp in COVID protocol. He missed camp and the first five games of the season, played nine of the next 11 and then sat out six of the next eight. To understate, it’s been a struggle to shake the lingering effects of the virus and get up to speed. With his fourth goal in the books, he looked like he was there Thursday.
If Neal’s got more of the same left in him, it’s good news for coach Dave Tippett. With 108 playoff games on his NHL resume, Neal has more game experience than all the Oilers’ top-end players combined — McDavid, Draisaitl, Tyson Barrie, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Darnell Nurse, Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto account for 98 games. Neal has scored 33 playoff goals. They have 22 in total.
“I feel like I’m getting my legs here at the right time,” Neal said post game. “I think being in the line-up on a consistent basis gives you that confidence. I’m right there. I’ve worked hard to stay ready. As we keep going here, I just try to keep getting better.
“It’s hard for sure. You never want to come into camp and be behind. The way everyone is these days, the way guys come into camp, they’re full-throttle and in amazing shape, so you want to be on your toes coming into camp. When you come in and you’re behind, it’s tough, but, like I said, you’ve got to deal with it. I’ve enjoyed the grind of getting back to where I need to be.”
Neal has made the post-season 10 times with five different teams – Pittsburgh, Nashville, Las Vegas, Calgary and Edmonton. He’s made it to the Stanley Cup final twice, with the Predators in 2017 and the Golden Knights in 2018, losing both times. With the Oilers locked into a playoff spot in the North Division, he’ll get another kick at the can. After this? There is no lack of motivation.
THE BOTTOM LINE
“In the end, I think I know what kind of player I am and know what kind of player I’ve been in the past,” Neal said. “I love the playoffs and I love big games. You know, we’ve got a great opportunity as a group here to do something special this year, so my focus was just to get better each day and when I got a chance, to try to grab hold of it.
“Each day you try to stick with it, be a good teammate, help guys out and be a leader around the room. When that opportunity comes, you’ve got to be ready, so I stuck right with it. I’m getting an opportunity now and I want to be a factor in the playoffs and help this team win.
“I’ve played a lot of playoff games, I’ve played a lot of big games, I’ve played in the Stanley Cup finals. I’ve been through those runs. I know what it takes to get there and what it takes to score in the playoffs, how you’ve got to win. I’m looking to help the team do that . . . I’ve got lots left in the tank.”
So says the Real Deal. Yes, that James Neal.