There’s no denying it, the Calgary Flames’ handling of veteran left-winger James Neal last season was a complete and utter disaster! After posting just 7 goals and 12 assists in 63 games for Calgary in the 2018-19 campaign (his first and only season with the club), Neal had thoroughly worn out his welcome with fans and media alike in the Stampede City.
Just a year earlier, on July 2, 2018, optimism ran high in Calgary as news broke that the coveted sniper had just signed a 5 year, $28.75 million (US) contract with the team. Having just gone on a Stanley Cup Finals run with the Vegas Golden Knights, Neal was seen as a key piece for the Flames who knew how to win in the playoffs. But Neal failed to live up to expectations in a major way in Calgary and was all but run out of town by the time the Flames were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Colorado Avalanche. Neal (somewhat deservingly) received harsh criticism from numerous sources for his miserable performance in Calgary, but the true culprit in the James Neal debacle is the Flames organization itself.
When Neal initially signed with the club, expectations were that he was (and would continue to be) a top 6 forward in the NHL—complete with all the benefits of such a role, including top 6 minutes, offensively gifted linemates, and an abundance of power play time with which to ply his trade. Unfortunately for Neal, this was not to be in Calgary.
Having averaged 17:11 of ice time per game during his previous season in Vegas (and 18:20 over his previous 3 seasons with the Nashville Predators), Neal’s ice time in Calgary fell to just 14:57 last season—a considerable drop for a player used to seeing over 17:30 of ice time throughout a professional career spanning more than a decade.
Naturally, Neal’s power play time also took a hit, plunging to a career low of just 2:12 per game during his time with the Flames. Such a drop in quality ice time would significantly impact any player’s production, but troubles only compound when the same player is relegated to third line status.
The issue (as I see it) is that expectations did not merely go unfulfilled in one direction—the Flames’ expectations of Neal, but rather, in both directions, as Neal’s expectations of the Flames were also left unmet. That is to say, when Neal left Vegas to sign with the Flames, he did so under the presumption (and almost certainly the promise) that he would continue to be used in Calgary as he had been throughout his career.
I’m not privy to any of the conversations between Neal, his agent, and Flames General Manager Brad Treliving, but common sense dictates that Neal would certainly not have signed with Calgary under any other presumption—particularly one in which he was to forego valuable minutes and be consigned to third line status. After all, he had just come off a 25 goal season as well as his tenth in a row in which he scored at least 20. He was not ready to enter the twilight of his career as a bottom 6 player just yet, and certainly not (from the Flames’ standpoint) at a salary of $5.75 million a year. But that is exactly what happened, and whatever the reason(s) behind it, Flames’ management failed to provide Neal with the necessary tools to succeed—quality ice time and skilled linemates.
Trade to Oilers Means Fresh Start for Neal
The end result of this untenable situation was an offseason trade with the Edmonton Oilers for Milan Lucic. This trade (in which the Oilers agreed to retain 12.5% of Lucic’s salary) was seen at the time as being mutually beneficial to all involved. Not only did it provide both players with a much needed fresh start, but it also allowed both teams to jettison pieces that were no longer wanted.
Thus far in Edmonton, neither ice time nor linemates seem to be an issue for Neal. Though the season is still young, he has already surpassed his entire goal total from last season with the Flames (Neal currently has 9 goals through 8 games with the Oilers). While nobody expects this torrid pace to continue, it’s a pretty safe bet that by season’s end Neal will have returned to his previous 20-30 goal form. In fact, with 3:23 of power play time per game while sharing the ice with the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl (6 of Neal’s goals thus far have come on the power play), I suspect that 35+ may not be out of reach for Neal, and not merely for just this season.
But even if Neal never cracks 30 goals for Edmonton, it’s already crystal clear that Calgary missed a huge opportunity with him last season. Given more total ice time and a bigger share of the quality power play minutes with Calgary’s top stars (guys like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Mark Giordano), Neal would certainly have been better positioned to succeed and may not have had the disastrous season he had.
What’s more, considering that all the Flames got back for Neal was another player who’d worn out his welcome with his existing club and a conditional third round pick in 2020, it’s unlikely they’ll see as many goals coming back in the trade this season as Neal has already scored in an Oilers uniform (Lucic had just 6 goals in Edmonton last season and thus far is sitting on 0 in Calgary). One way or another, in the James Neal debacle, Calgary’s loss is most certainly Edmonton’s gain.