He’s been labelled the ‘Real Deal’ throughout his NHL career, but James Neal has been anything but in his first 18 games with the Calgary Flames.
One of the most reliable goal scorers over the last decade, Neal has struggled to find his groove since signing a monster five-year, $28.75 million contract in the off-season.
Scoring at least 20 goals every year of his career, it’s been an unusually slow start to the season for Neal with just three goals and four points in 18 games.
The @NHLFlames frustration with James Neal hits the next level. Bill Peters sat the forward for the third vs @SanJoseSharks limiting Neal to 8 total minutes. Neal has just 1 pt, a goal, in the last 8 games.
— Daren Millard (@darenmillard) November 12, 2018
Neal’s struggles came to a head on Monday night in San Jose, when head coach Bill Peters benched the 31-year-old for the entire third period and limited him to just eight minutes all evening.
Almost a quarter of the way through the 2018-19 season, here’s three reasons why Flames fans haven’t yet seen the James Neal of old.
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1. Inconsistent linemates and odd deployment
When Neal signed with Calgary in July, the expectation was that he would settle into a top-six role on the Flames goal-starved right side.
Although he’s been deployed on that right wing, Neal has had little time to generate much chemistry as he’s bounced around Calgary’s top-nine to start the season.
Neal has spent most of the season on Calgary’s second line with Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund, but he’s spent a peculiar amount of time on the team’s checking line as well.
Aside from his second line duties, Neal has spent most of the year with Sam Bennett and either Mark Jankowski or Derek Ryan on the Flames third line.
Some #Flames wearing different jersey colours this morning…looks like the second, third and fourth lines will all have different looks (Bennett is top-six, Neal in bottom-six). Stay tuned.
— Derek Wills (@Fan960Wills) November 13, 2018
While he may not be the 40-goal scorer he was at the beginning of the decade, Peters’ use of the sniper in a third-line role confused many Flames fans.
That’s when he was bumped back up to second-line duty, where he’s been over the last few games but only has one goal in his last eight contests.
Playing lengthy stretches with five different linemates to start the season is a tough test and is likely the major reason why Neal has been so quiet to begin his 11th season in the league.
2. Lindholm factor
After Calgary signed Neal and traded for Elias Lindholm from the Carolina Hurricanes, the question was posed on who would join Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau on the team’s top line.
The initial assumption seemed to lean towards the more goal oriented Neal, whose knack for finding the net would complement the passing ability of Gaudreau and the two-way confidence from Monahan.
However, that was quickly put to bed on the opening night of the season when Peters chose to run with Lindholm on his top line.
Elias Lindholm logged 23:59 in ice time tonight, second most in his career. Smart, skilled, excels on PP1, relied upon on PK, has been a perfect fit on the top line, tied for 14th in scoring (9-9-18).
So far, locked up through 2023-24 at $4.85M AAV is looking like a shrewd deal.
— Darren Haynes (@DarrenWHaynes) November 8, 2018
That move has paid off in spades in the early part of the season for Calgary, as Lindholm has been a point per game player alongside the Flames dynamic duo.
That’s left Neal as a bit of an afterthought, as Lindholm’s chemistry with Gaudreau and Monahan has allowed him to get top minutes and play with one of the West’s best one-two offensive punches.
Another issue for Neal is that the puck simply hasn’t been bouncing his way, with his shooting percentage hovering just over seven percent.
That’s well below his career average of 12 percent, which would put him at around five goals on the season if he was firing at his normal clip.
3. Adjusting to new scenery
It’s the oldest excuse in the book for a new player struggling to live up to expectations, but every once in a while it proves correct.
This is Neal’s third team in three seasons after being a mainstay with the Nashville Predators for three seasons and a one year stint with the upstart Vegas Golden Knights.
Neither of those new destinations seemed to slow Neal down, but Calgary is the Whitby, Ontario native’s first Canadian market.
That coupled with his lucrative contract signed in the off-season placed a lot of expectations on his shoulders, most of which he has been unable to live up to so far.
Välimäki with the great play and it leads a James Neal goal. #Flames #COLvsCGY pic.twitter.com/pzkP769733
— Sportsnet 960 (@Sportsnet960) November 2, 2018
But Flames fans nervous at the implications of Neal’s slump should only look to another high profile acquisition that failed to meet expectations in his first year, Travis Hamonic.
Brought over from the New York Islanders on the floor of the 2017 NHL Draft, Hamonic was a major disappointment during his first campaign with the Flames, just posting one goal and 11 points in 74 games.
Settling into a new defensive pairing with Noah Hanifin, it’s been a turnaround start to the season for Hamonic especially since returning from a facial fracture in the season opener.
Hamonic has one goal and three points in his last eight games, nothing earth shattering but it’s a good sign that’s he’s starting to regain his confidence.
Now, that’s not to say Neal’s slump is going to last all season like Hamonic’s did, but there is light at the end of the tunnel if he does.
Regardless, he has a five-year contract to play on and the Flames are going to make sure he gets every chance possible to live up to it.