If ever there was a deadline pick-up that caused more elation, then frustration, then more elation, then abject hatred, then more (un)conditional love followed by even more anger and hostility than James “The Real Deal” Neal, I do not remember who this individual was or why we were so excited and then hate-filled.
I know I have said some unkind things about the general Pens’ fan base before. I don’t have a problem with bandwagon fans. I don’t have a problem with “new” fans because everyone has to start somewhere. I do, however, have a problem with ignorant and/or senseless fans. I’m not saying people should not get emotionally involved with the game and let their emotions sometimes get the best of them. If everyone watched the game from up on high and took themselves completely out of the game it wouldn’t be fun. Sometimes we say things in the heat of the moment or we make comments about a player because of one thing or another. James Neal has shown so many people need to be on mood stabilizers. In the span of 27 games Neal went from savior and to villain. I’ll be first to admit that, yes, he did need to put a few of his chances in the back of the net, but he was also one of the few players on the depleted roster generating offense and making the most what was being offered.
I, personally, was a fan of James Neal while he was coming up with Dallas. I never imagined the Pens would be able to peel him away from Dallas. I likened him to Jamie Benn in the Dallas organization and it would take a gross overpayment to get him out of there. Shero was able to get Neal and Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. Don’t get me wrong, I loved Goose and I thought he was unnecessarily shat upon by many fans, but I would make that trade every single day of the week. It was a good hockey trade, too, as Dallas was in desperate need for a puck-moving offensive D-man, and Pittsburgh was in need of legitimate top-6 forwards to play with those guys named Crosby and Malkin, once each got healthy.
And therein lies the rub. Neal wasn’t brought in to be the entire offense and to carry the team. He was brought in to play alongside one of the top line centers and make space, rush the net, bang bodies, and clear a path for the star players all the while keeping the opposing teams honest because he isn’t afraid to shoot and you disrespect his skill at your own peril. The argument has often been made that Staal could play top-line center for just about any team in the league. He was afforded, unfortunately, that opportunity for about 1/3 of the season this year, and while he had a productive year, he clearly was out-of-place. Neal-Staal-Kovalev was not exactly the line anyone had expected, nor was it the line one needed to worry about defending. Neal complements the center, Kovy played without any hustle, and Staal was the scoring threat on the line.
Maybe in NHL from EA Sports that line would put up unlimited goals and be a combined +28498, but in the real world the player styles are a little too different to make things work. Need I remind everyone, Mark Letestu was playing top line center minutes. That’s how messed up it was. Was Neal’s season with Pittsburgh simply a culmination of too many unkind variables? Maybe. Did people, on the whole, have unrealistic expectations about what he could bring in ~20 games? Absolutely. Neal came up playing with defensively minded and “safe” coaches in Dave Tippet and Marc Crawford. Moving to Bylsma’s style and system is a hard transition. I feel people lost sight of that fact. There are other variables, too, in the mix. Neal’s off-season training is with none other than Gary Roberts. I have my concerns that the training regimen is a little too harsh or too rigid. Steven Stamkos, too, trains under Roberts and both he and Neal had the same issues — fading down the stretch. The work rate is there, but the skill level drops off some from earlier in the season. May be from wearing down, may be from other things. Perhaps this is all just baseless conjecture, too.
With all of that out of the way, let’s take a look at the season by the numbers (outright, combined between Dallas and Pittsburgh)
79GP, 22G, 23A, 45P, +7, 66PIM, 212S, 10.4S%, 5PPG, 5PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 3GWG, 17:30TOI
We’ll start with the obvious stuff. Playing 79 games is no small feat, especially given the game Neal plays. If you need a reminder as to what that looks like, just watch this video a few times and then imagine what that will look like with Sidney Crosby and, potentially, Chris Kunitz. My God.
To bang bodies like he does and go to the dirty areas for goals, it takes a toll on one’s body. The upside to the Roberts School of Domination is that it does allow Neal to play that way and not become so overly worn down that he needs to take time off and that his body heals quickly. The downside, as mentioned above, is that constant pounding like that can have a long tail and maybe cause a drop off in pure skill plays.
Offensive production, too, is impressive, if a little skewed. 45 points in 79 games is about .6 points per game. Not bad production at all. 22 goals in 79 games puts him squarely in the mold of 1 goal every 3-4 games. Would like to see that tick up to the goal per 2-3 games, but I’ll take 20+ goals regularly. 23 assists is nothing to sneeze at, either. It should not be lost on anyone that his goal production AND assist production are nearly identical. He is scoring, but he’s also setting up the scoring.
Looking deeper into the goal scoring, and this is specifically dealing with his time with the Pens, he wasn’t as disappointing as people made him out to be, but it was a little bit of a letdown when only one goal is scored when he was able to do that 21 other times with Dallas. On a more positive note, in the two games (playoffs included) where Neal scores a goal, the Pens went 2-0.
After being acquired by the Pens, Neal was a minus player 7 of 20 games. In those 7 games, the Pens went 5-2. As a neutral player, the Pens went 3-5. As a plus player, the Pens went 4-1. No real discernible pattern emerges from looking at the trend line. Unlike a Michalek or even a Cooke, looking at +/- doesn’t hold any type of forecast for the Pens and probability of winning or losing outside of “when your top player is a + you typically win.” Simply put, Neal was a minus player 7 times and a neutral or plus player 13 times. Given how few goals the team was scoring once he was acquired, I would say that’s pretty solid two-way play for a guy not necessarily known for being a pure two-way player, like Jordan Staal.
What is mystifying about Neal is if you look at his entire season of production by month.
October: 5G, 5A, 10P, +6
November: 5G, 6A, 11P, +6
December: 3G, 5A, 8P, -1
January: 7G, 1A, 8P, 0+/-
February: 1G, 1A, 2P, -4
March: 1G, 4A, 5P, 0
April: 0G, 1A, 1P, 0
How a player can go from being an absolutely dominant force for the first four months and then become a snakebitten corpse in the point production is truly something to wonder. Is it possible that fatigue was setting in? I believe that was a contributing factor. Add in the fact that he was playing in a new system and playing with guys who were in way over their respective heads attempting to do more than they ever should have been expected to. It was a dangerous combination of things that all came to head and caused many shortsighted fans to call for Shero’s head because Neal didn’t score 30 goals in 20 games.
Additionally, none of the games this season were offensive blowouts to possibly skew the numbers. Neal only had one 3 point game all year (11/18 – DAL v SJS). All others were 2 or fewer points.
Also, for the record, Neal had an assist and was a +1 in the 5-2 romp vs the Penguins, when this memorable moment occurred:
Remember how Sid went on an unreal point scoring tear after that game? Oh, those were the days. It became even funnier that the Pens picked up Niskanen along with Neal to bring it all full circle.
There is no one team which Neal has dominated against, either. That is less of a concern as the majority of his games came against Western Conference teams the Pens will only see one or two times each year. He did, however, prove to be a shootout ace. I know everyone liked to make jokes about how he could only score goals in the shootout, but as long as regular season games are determined by a skill competition, I’ll gladly have him on the team. I had jokingly commented during the season that Neal needed to take a page from Ovechkin’s playbook and cherry pick past center read and wait for the home run passes from Michalek or Martin and just score on breakaways by pretending it’s a shoot out attempt.
Seriously, though, I’ll never forgot him making Brodeur look like a fool in this attempt:
As far as playoff performance went, well, I think we all remember the work that Neal put in each game. He didn’t have an atrocious game all series (the worst coming in the 8-2 loss, in which he was a -2 with only 1 shot on goal). In game 7, when all the chips were down, he did manage 6 shots on goal. It wasn’t for lack of trying or effort. Of course, we all remember game 4 of the series and the absolutely insane and prophetic talking of Paul Steigerwald and Bob Errey.
Another aspect of Neal’s game is the time spent in the penalty box, or, more appropriately, the lack of time spent in the penalty box. He racked up only 66 total minutes in penalties all year, 19 of which came in a single game vs. Edmonton. Throw out the game vs EDM and he had 47PIM in 78 games. That is impressive, given the totality of the game being played and the fact that he is solid defensively, too.
Ultimately, Neal is only in his 4th year in the NHL. He’s still an incredibly young, up and coming talent. He played with stars on the Stars and put up great numbers. He played with chumps and guys out of their element in Pittsburgh and put up not so great numbers. We could see what type of skill he had when the shoot out rolled around, but you can’t always count on playing to the SO each game. If one truly wants to evaluate whether Neal was an excellent pick-up, especially given the depth we had on D and how Goligoski became expendable, I suggest you wait until after he gets a full training camp in with the team. We can revisit his performance with the Pens once the All-star break rolls around next season. People have been willing to forgive players like Fleury and Letang for every misstep “because they are young and have a lot to learn.” The pendulum swings that way with Neal, too. He’s a young buck who, frankly, is playing better hockey than can be expected from such a young guy who has been part of a somewhat crummy organization since being drafted.
We won’t really know how the trade worked out until the end of next season. Neal getting to play with guys like Sid and Geno could be exactly what he needs to be a 30+ goal scorer and 60+ point getter. Or maybe he just doesn’t fit the Pens system (I disagree, I think he is the perfect definition of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin) and we’ll go our separate ways. I expect a big year out of him, provided Sid and/or Geno are healthy.
Looking ahead, assuming the stars are playing and the situation is normal, I expect the following out of Neal
77GP, 31G, 28A, 59P, +15, 82PIM, 225S, 13.7S%, 4PPG, 9PPA, 0SHG, 0SHA, 18:17TOI.
For good or bad, I feel the spotlight will be squarely on Mr. Neal this season. Let’s hope it is all for the good and we have the long-term solution and replacement for Kunitz on Sid’s wing (or we keep both Koon and Neal…my God…bodies will be banged, history will be made).
Let’s go Pens.