As James Neal watched from the press box, the Calgary Flames were eliminated with a 5-1 loss to Colorado Avalanche.
Now we are left considering what will become of James Neal. He has been one of the most consistent goal scorer in the NHL for the duration of his career, but was never able to find his footing with the Flames. Neal had scored more than 20 goals in 11 straight season prior to signing his contract with Calgary. Due to injuries and inconsistent play, he only scored seven goals this season. The disappointment of his season was punctuated by multiple healthy scratches, including last night in a must win game in the playoffs.
James Neal’s History
Drafted by the Dallas Stars in the 2nd round with the 33rd overall pick, Neal signed his ELC at 19 years old. At 21, he joined the Stars out of camp and scored 24 goals in 77 games. In two and a half season, he netted 72 goals with Dallas.
During the 2010-11 season, Neal was sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins along with Matt Niskanen in exchange for Alex Goligoski. Despite having his best years with the Penguins, including a 40 goal campaign in 2011-12, he was never really well received by the Pittsburgh fan base. His inconsistent playoff performances, in conjunction with his untimely offensive zone penalties, eventually led to his departure from the Steel City.
During the 2014 NHL Entry Draft, James Neal was sent to the Nashville Predators. As compensation the Penguins received Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. He continued to be a reliable goal scorer, and helped Nashville reach the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017. However, with so much talent on their blue-line, Nashville chose to expose him in the Vegas Expansion Draft.
Vegas Golden Knights selected Neal without any additional incentives. James scored 25 goals for the Knights and helped lead the youthful roster to the Stanley Cup Finals. With unrestricted free agency looming, Neal was not retained by the Golden Knights. He signed a 5-year, $28.75M contract with the Calgary Flames.
Struggles with Calgary
Many people assumed that having an elite goal-scorer like Neal would create favorable matchups for Johnny Gaudreau. While Gaudreau certainly experienced a career year, little of his success hinged on the threat of James Neal. Neal struggled to find consistency with any linemates and began the season on the third line. His struggles led to a reduced role, as he only played 13.6% of the season on Calgary’s Power Play unit.
Before suffering an undisclosed lower body injury in February, James Neal had only 5 goals in 56 games. His struggles continued down the stretch, as he finished with just 7 goals in 63 games. His postseason did not fare better, where he was held without a point in the first four games. As stated in the intro of the article, he finished the series as a healthy scratch.
What the Future Holds
Now things get really tricky for the Flames, who are on the hook for four more years of Neal’s current contract. Let’s look at the options they have.
Stick it out
I am sure this will not be the most appealing option for Calgary fans, but it is probably the most likely. With just over $67M committed to contracts next year and a few key RFA’s to tender offers to, the Flames may end up on the upper end of the cap spectrum next year. Having dead money on the books can severely hinder a contending team, especially when looking at top tier free agents. While Mike Smith is a 37 year old netminder, his playoff performance could create a bidding war. With David Rittich a restricted free agent, Calgary could have over $7M invested in goaltending alone next year.
This could be doable, if Calgary can convince other teams that this was just a down year for Neal and not a decline. If they are not able to present that properly, they may have to add incentive to the trade. Whether this means giving up a blue chip prospect or parting with draft picks remains to be seen. It could also mean retaining a portion of the winger’s salary, which would be less than ideal depending on the return.
As I logged into capfriendly.com to research this topic, James Neal was trending as the most popular buyout candidate. You guys are ruthless. I continued on with the research, and what I found did little to convince me that this scenario is likely. If Calgary opted to terminate the final four years, they would sacrifice nearly $2M in salary cap space for the next 8 years. While many Flames fans would argue that this is more than he should be making anyway, one must consider the potential fallout of that.
The salary cap has been consistently increasing since the lockout of 2012-13, but the 10 year agreement has an opt out clause that can be exercised in September. This could create a lockout following the 2019-20 season. Any significant loss of revenue would certainly be reflected in the salary cap. If there were a significant drop in the cap, having nearly $3.5M in dead space (Troy Brouwer and James Neal) would hinder them for a long time.
I don’t think a player as good as James Neal declines in just one offseason. Maybe he doesn’t fit in Bill Peters system, or maybe he had more underlying injuries. Whatever may be the case, I believe he will have a bounce back year, next season. It is likely that Calgary explores trade possibilities for the winger, and I think they will find a willing taker. In an era where goal scoring is at a premium, many teams would welcome a former 40 goal scorer to their locker room.
stats from hockey-reference.com and NHL.com
featured image photo credit – Josh Tessler