Calgary Flames free agent signing James Neal is having the worst year of his career so far in his first year with the team. So, how can you turn this around or was this simply an awful signing by the Flames? I took a look at finding some solutions.
With all that has been going right for the Calgary Flames this season, there has been one consistent glaring negative that has been quite puzzling to figure out. That negative would be James Neal.
The same James Neal that was given a five-year contract this off-season by the Flames, averaging over $5 million per.
That same James Neal that we all were super excited about to see the Flames sign. James Neal – the man who has never scored less than 20 goals in a year and the man who was going to finally give the Calgary Flames the scoring depth they desperately needed.
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To say that things have not been going well for James Neal would be an understatement. As of writing this, he has just three goals and seven points in 34 games. I took a deeper look at his numbers this year to try to find a solution to his struggles. Comparing these numbers with his career statistics, and there is a lot to be concerned about.
For starters, you need to shoot the puck in order to score. James Neal is currently on pace for his lowest shot on goal total since his rookie season, excluding the lockout-shortened season. The easy response to this would be to shoot the puck more, right? Well, no. Neal has a shooting percentage of just 4% right now. His career average is 11.8%. This awful shooting percentage could be part of why Neal is not shooting the puck as much this season. He is not used to the puck not going in the net, and his confidence in his shot is no doubt low right now. Despite this, when you watch the Calgary Flames play, Neal does not appear hesitant to put the puck on net. He really shouldn’t be, either. James Neal is a goal scorer and goal scorers need to shoot. He is not an elite passer and he never has been. His game is to fire away and put the puck in the net.
Neal has looked slow and passive at times. Half of the time I watch the Flames, I don’t even notice him out on the ice. Neal has just nine blocks, five takeaways, and twenty-six hits through 34 games as of this writing. The hits and takeaways are also on pace for career lows. James Neal just seems to be having trouble finding a way to make any sort of impact with the Calgary Flames.
I want to be clear that I do not think the problem is the Flames or Bill Peters. Peters has moved Neal up and down the lineup and given him different looks in different situations to try to get him going. James Neal is no stranger to change of scenery either. The Flames are the fifth team he has played for in his career now. Looking back at it, he actually does better in his first years with a new team. James Neal is no lost cause though, and there are ways to get him going.
The problem is not the willingness to shoot, but rather the opportunity to shoot. James Neal really has not had many good looks at the net this season. In James Neal’s best season of his career, he played alongside Evgeni Malkin. Malkin excels at creating space and scoring chances for whoever is on his wing. Neal scored 40 times that season because when he gets that kind of space, he is deadly. So, who on the Calgary Flames can create that similar sort of space to allow Neal to get good looks at the net? Easy. Johnny Gaudreau. Now before you start to get upset, I am by no means suggesting that Bill Peters separate the “Purple Gatorade Line” of Johnny, Sean Monahan, and Elias Lindholm. This line has statistically been a top three line in the NHL this season. There are other ways to create these opportunities for Neal without breaking that lineup.
Option 1 – Double shift Gaudreau along with James Neal and I would say Derek Ryan. Bill Peters has not shied away from mixing up his lines throughout the game if needed, so why not try this out on a consistent basis? I would love to see Peters employ this line when the Flames are trailing or in need of that put-away goal. I think that if Johnny Hockey were double shifted consistently with Neal, they could start to create magic together. This is not something that is going to happen immediately and I am not saying you do this for the entire season, but in order to get Neal going, I think this is a very good move. The hope is that once James Neal gets going, he gets his confidence back and starts firing away like he always has.
Option 2 – Have James Neal lead the rush through the middle of the ice. When I watch the Flames currently, Neal is on the wing and is never given a straight on look at the net because he is not playing with space and does not possess the necessary speed to get around the defenders. So, most of the time he elects to dump the puck in or shoot it into the defender. I think that if on the attack you allow Neal to skate through the middle of the ice, like a center, he will have more options at his disposal and better angles with which to shoot. Again, you want James Neal to be shooting the puck still, despite his poor shooting percentage so far this year.
Option 3 – Giving James Neal a look at the top powerplay unit. While doing some research on James Neal, I noticed a similarity between where he played on the power play with Pittsburgh, Nashville, and Vegas. James Neal would be positioned similarly to where Matthew Tkachuk plays. Around the left wing dot, shifting down to beside the net. The Calgary Flames have a very active power play with a lot of moving pieces, but with James Neal’s wrist shot being on the side opposite of Gaudreau, there is little doubt that this would be a big success. As I have said before, you just want to get Neal some goals and get that confidence back.
It is far too early to start comparing this signing to that of Troy Brouwer, although it may be tempting to. It is honestly hard to complain about James Neal given the way the team is playing this year, but this is certainly something you want fixed given the length and amount of the contract. The red flags of projected career lows in several different areas is a concern, but I am confident that all James Neal needs is a little boost to get going and we will start to see that sniping that we all anticipated. He will be the Flames Neal we all wanted once again.