McPhee Deserves Credit For Foresight As James Neal Struggles

McPhee Deserves Credit For Foresight As James Neal Struggles

It was the perfect setup for a classic goal-scorer. The Columbus Blue Jackets had scored six, yet *still* lost by three goals to their opponents. Fans of offensive hockey had a great night between 15 different goals. Fans of the Blue Jackets may have left the building only to step into 20-degree weather (which stings a lot worse after having watched a losing effort,) but the majority of them had most certainly been thoroughly entertained. The Calgary Flames had owned the night, and what an onslaught it was — even for a high-octane offense like theirs.

In a game where his team scored NINE GOALS, James Neal’s biggest contribution was 3 shots.

No goals for the ‘Real Deal.’ No assists.

In 20 shifts, he didn’t have or create any scoring chances either.

In over 18 minutes of ice-time (1:06 of that spent on the Power Play,) Neal couldn’t get on the board. This wasn’t the first time it’s happened this season; far from it.

The next night saw him log another 14:55 in ice-time (1:23 on the Power Play,) and Neal fared even worse, as he was practically invisible. Calgary still owned that night, too — and the hometown crowd left the building into similar weather experienced in Columbus the night before. Flames fans are used to it though — just like they’ve grown used to winning games without the help of one James Neal.

There are definitely fans that have noticed, though — including devoting entire social media accounts to the topic:

The next game, James Neal and the Flames hosted the Nashville Predators. Same 20-degree weather; same result: The Flames score a ton of goals, and win — win without James Neal doing much.

He registered two shots during his near-17 minutes of ice-time (2:12 on the Power Play,) and one hit. The two shots were actually decent chances — at least when juxtaposed with the previous games. In fact, shot selection has also been an issue for Neal this year.

The next night …well, you get the picture.

Neal registered 15:54 TOI against Edmonton (1:20 on the Power Play.)

No goals. No assists. Not even any shots. A penalty was all Neal could muster.

Has he simply played too much hockey the last few years, after having reached the Finals three consecutive times?

Well, considering one of the rationalities for his slow start earlier in the season was a lack of ice-time, one has to wonder just how tired Neal could possibly be.

Early-season murmurs around the lockerroom painted Neal as disgruntled with his minutes — to which the coaching staff replied with a statement about maximizing minutes. As ineffective as he continued being however, he was given the ice-time he wanted.

In a league which puts speed and skill before anything else, is time just catching up to James Neal?

There’s no doubt that James Neal is still an elite finisher — but his shot percentage is below 5%. Considering it hasn’t been below 10% in nearly a decade, and it was just a small 20 game stint after being traded midseason, that’s a significant drop.

James Neal isn’t used to playing with the bottom six forwards. Conversely, he’s also not used to having bottom six linemates — and it’s appearing as if making the adjustment has been more difficult than anticipated. Despite getting minutes on the Power Play, the top PP line in Calgary is more or less set where it is, despite it likely being the one place that would definitely suit him the most, especially in a slump like this. The second line has seen it’s struggles scoring as a whole and as individuals.

Of course, Golden Knights fans are well aware of Neal’s hot and cold tendencies, and are watching his VGK replacement Max Pacioretty play in much of the same fashion. Pure goal-scorers are streaky, there’s little getting around it. The support of your linemates can help work around it, or drag you out of it. It’s possible that missing David Perron and Erik Haula do a lot of the dirty work has hurt Neal, but he’s currently on pace for less than 10 goals on the year. He hasn’t scored less than 20 a year in his entire career — and that certainly wasn’t accomplished by relying solely on talented linemates.

With Perron and Haula, Neal’s line was producing nearly around 27 scoring chances per 60 minutes. With the linemate he’s spent most time with in Calgary so far in Derek Ryan, it’s been 26 chances per 60. The biggest difference has been in the on-ice shooting percentage, and the drop has been dramatic.

While Neal can’t do things like get faster or younger, shot selection and effort has to be two primary concerns for him. He’s being looked at as a driving force in his current role on the third line, something he’s not used to being. This is clearly not the best situation for him, but it’s the one he’s in. Luckily, the team is in a good enough position to have the luxury of waiting for him to snap out of it.

The contributions Neal made in the Golden Knights’ inaugural season will never be forgotten, whether he breaks out of his slump or not. What IS already forgotten are the early-season whispers from some fans saying that bringing in Pacioretty in favor of James Neal was a mistake.

Granted, Pacioretty has yet to score a goal in the month of December. (He does have three assists, however — matching Neal’s total assists on the year thus far.) However, his last goal was November 29th.

James Neal hasn’t scored a goal since November 1st.

That’s right — THE James Neal hasn’t scored a goal since November 1st. He is on pace for 7 goals and 7 assists, while Paxioretty’s current pace puts him on track for 28 goals and 22 assists. While those are lower than his norm, they’re certainly acceptable considering the circumstances — especially as he has flashed what he’s truly capable of when he’s able to settle in. On top of that, he will likely get the Center he was intended to play with off of the injured list.

Neal, however, is looking for a way to make his near-$6M AAV a worthwhile investment for the Flames, especially since it’s a five year deal. As things stand now (read: much too early,) the contract may be an early candidate for the new Seattle franchise.

Yes, the “ditch Patches for Neal” chatters will be forgotten — and to be honest, they should be. What shouldn’t be lost in the process is the credit George McPhee deserves for the foresight he showed with James Neal. It would’ve been easy to justify giving Neal a deal similar to what Calgary gave him, at least locally — and while there’s no guarantee Neal would be experiencing the same issues he’s currently going through — McPhee still deserves the credit nonetheless.

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Jenny Pattison
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Jenny Pattison

Some very insightful insight!! Gave me cause to think a bit differently then I had about the game of hockey!! And how and what a coach needs to do. I def wouldn’t want to have to make decisions that a coach has to make!!

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