Photo via Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers
With a minute left on the power play against the San Jose Sharks Tuesday night, Connor McDavid shot the puck from a faceoff circle on the far side to number 18, who skates into the crease and tips-in the shot for the Edmonton Oilers’ fourth goal of the game.
Number 18 has seen this situation before. In fact, through 23 games he has already collected nine power-play goals and 16 total points.
That number 18? 32-year-old forward James Neal.
The same James Neal had nine total goals last year for the Calgary Flames. The same James Neal who only had four points through 23 games last season. The same James Neal who was traded from Calgary one year into a five-year $28.75 million deal where he only collected 19 points. The same James Neal who was scratched in the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Colorado Avalanche last year despite being healthy. Not the production or decision you would expect from a forward with a cap hit of $5.75 million.
It is obvious at this point. Neal has looked different this year. More dynamic. More explosive. But how?
It is best to look at what Neal’s role on offense is first. When he was collecting points with Calgary last year, he worked in the low slot close to the faceoff circles. Primarily, though, he was a player that perched himself at the goal crease in order to tip-in, deflect or wrist the puck in from assists coming from teammates in the faceoff circles or blue line.
Comparing last year’s scouting report to this year, the style of play for Neal is not much different. In fact, he still perches on the goal crease, whether it be on the right or left side of the post. Eight of his 13 goals have come from his positioning there. There has been some slight difference in his style of play, though. His remaining four goals have come from different areas of the ice. Two have come from the perimeter of the faceoff circle close to the blue line, with the other two coming in the slot.
He has been a force in driving in goals this season, but with his style of play not changing to an extreme, what has it been that has led to more goals?
He has spent more time on the ice, to keep it simple. Neal’s average time on the ice (ATOI) this year is 16:36 compared to 14:57 last season. In his 23 games played this season, he has played at least 16 minutes in 15 games and at least 18 minutes in eight. Through 23 games last season he only played at least 16 minutes in 11 games and at least 18 in only three. He was not seeing steady minutes on the power play either, despite the Flames being a pedestrian 18th in PP% last year (19.3%). Despite this, the Flames were tied for second in goals scored last season with 289, so when Neal was not performing to the expectation Calgary thought he would play at, they benched him and gave minutes to other players who were playing better.
From diminished ice time to not fitting in the Flames’ offensive scheme, Neal needed a change of scenery. He got one, although this was not a run-of-the-mill change of scenery. He moved to a team with two of the most dynamic forwards in the game in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Players that are first and second in the entire NHL in points (44 for Draisaitl and 43 for McDavid) and first and tied for second in power-play points (19 for McDavid and 14 for Draisaitl). Players can set Neal up for success based on his style of play.
Again, Neal’s way of scoring goals is to be perched on the goal crease, especially on the power play. In order to do that you need players that share the puck. McDavid and Draisaitl on the power play have 12 and 13 assists so far this season, respectively.
With two superstars who are not greedy with the puck, the Oilers have revived a player who practically lost his job last season into a player who had 18 power-play goals while with the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2011-2012 season.
Can Neal keep this production up even though he is 32? That is yet to be seen. So far, though, Neal has seized the opportunity based on the personnel around him. Should he continue the production he is putting up, his contract for Edmonton will be an absolute bargain.