Not much has gone wrong for the Calgary Flames so far this season as the teams heads into the all-star break with a 33-13-5 record after they defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime on Jan. 23.
Johnny Gaudreau is in the early conversations for the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player, as is captain Mark Giordano for the Norris and head coach Bill Peters is surely going to be up for the Jack Adams Award as the top bench boss in the NHL. The Flames have five players with 50 or more points – tops in the league and goaltender David Rittich has been superb with his 19-4-4 record, 2.47 goals-against-average and .918 save percentage.
With Calgary’s success so far this season, many would be led to believe that a big reason why the Flames are the second highest scoring team in the National Hockey League would be the addition of sniper James Neal. That has not been the case as Neal has posted five goals and seven assists for 12 points in 49 games so far this season and unless he goes on a tear in the second half, is also in danger of losing his streak of nine straight seasons with 20-plus goals. So what’s going on with proven goal scorer? Here’s my take on the matter.
Fatigue is Setting In
Neal has played a lot of hockey over the past two seasons so fatigue surely is setting in for the 31-year-old. He played 70 regular season games two years ago with the Nashville Predators, a team that went to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals before eventually falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Before Neal had time to digest the loss, he was left unprotected by the Predators and was shipped off to the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft.
Neal once again played in 70-plus regular season games to go along with 20 gruelling playoff contests as Vegas made a surprise trip to the Stanley Cup Finals where Neal and his teammates fell in six games to Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals. In the past two seasons prior to joining Calgary in July, Neal played a total of 183 games with two shortened off-seasons as well as being forced to move cities for the third time in three years. No matter who you are, the physical and mental drain of all that movement would be tough for a player to handle. Fatigue seems to be catching up with the Canadian sharp shooter.
Playing in a Canadian Market Comes With Pressure
Everyone knows that playing in a Canadian market is a pressure cooker for any National Hockey League player, let alone one of your prized free agent signings. Over his NHL career, Neal has played in Dallas, Pittsburgh, Nashville and Vegas – none of which compare to the scrutiny of playing in a Canadian city. Talking hockey is considered a hobby in Calgary and the Flames are the driving force behind many media outlets where the questions surrounding Neal usually include why he’s not producing. It’s pressure and publicity that Neal might not be accustomed to during his 11-year pro career and I’m sure the 31-year-old is sick of answering questions about his struggles to get going.
Failed Chemistry Leads to Inconsistency
Many experts slotted Neal in on the Flames top line flanking Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau but head coach Bill Peters had other ideas, instead placing two-way forward Elias Lindholm on the right side of the dynamic duo and the line has played a crucial part in the Flames success so far this season.
Neal started the year on the Flames third line with Derek Ryan and rookie Dillon Dube but has since bounced around the line up, spending time with Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk while also spending time with Mark Jankowski and Michael Frolik, all of which have led to failed chemistry with his line mates. He hasn’t found the consistency he had with David Perron and Erik Haula last season in Vegas or with Mike Fisher and Viktor Arvidsson in Nashville. Neal has played the last three games with Backlund and Frolik, registering two points including a game tying goal against Detroit on Jan. 18 while generating 11 shots in those three games, a sign he’s starting to generate a bit of offence.
The all-star weekend plus the Flames mandated break likely couldn’t have come at a better time for Neal as he and most of his teammates will have a full nine full days off from hockey to rest and recharge the batteries, something he hardly has had a chance to do with shortened off-seasons. I’ve liked Neal’s game a bit more the last few games since he’s been with Backlund and Frolik and it would be huge for the Flames down the stretch should he start generating more offence to give the Flames three lines that can produce at a high rate.