If he could, James Neal would like nothing more than to erase last season from the history books. Unfortunately, that isn’t how things work, not even for a ten-time 20-goal scorer. Like it or not, he now has something to prove and the Edmonton Oilers are banking on the 32-year-old pulling out all the stops in hopes of silencing his critics.
Despite scoring just seven times in 63 games with the Flames during the 2018-19 campaign, there is a reason for optimism when it comes to the Whitby, Ontario native. Over the curse of his eleven-year career, Neal has always shown the ability to score goals when playing with skilled linemates. While said opportunity never materialized in Calgary, there will be opportunity aplenty in the Alberta capital over the coming weeks.
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By the sounds of it, Neal will start his Oilers journey playing alongside Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. If the two can connect, the transition will be smooth and Edmonton will become a more difficult opponent for teams to deal with on a nightly basis. If things don’t go as planned, the 2005 second-round pick is sure to find himself on a line with Connor McDavid and possibly even Leon Draisaitl.
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In other words, no matter how this plays out, Neal is going to be placed in a familiar position. While he is on the wrong side of 30 and not the player he once was, history suggests the talented winger should still score his fair share of goals. The combination of regular duty inside the top-six and what is likely to become a prominent spot on the man advantage, should all but guarantee another 20-goal campaign.
After going through the disaster that was last season, Neal must feel like he has been given a new lease on life. To go from a situation where your head coach has zero interest in using you in the role you signed as a free agent to fill, to where he sits today, is staggering. A fortunate landing spot to be sure but let’s not forget what the organization gained in making the swap they did to bring him on board.
Lucic Trade Changed Everything
By moving out Milan Lucic and adding Neal, the Oilers not only upgraded their depth upfront but also managed to change the feel of their roster. Though still flawed, by trading away a guy with a limited skill-set and an awful contract, Ken Holland was able to open up enough wiggle room to make other moves to improve the lineup. No question the upgrades were marginal at best but baby steps are better than no steps at all.
With the addition of Neal and subsequent moves that saw them sign Josh Archibald, Markus Granlund, Gaetan Haas, Tomas Jurco, Joakim Nygard and Riley Sheahan, the potential for this lineup to be better is real. Whether or not it works out is another questions altogether but on the surface, the chance exists and none of it would’ve mattered without the two-time Stanley Cup finalist in the picture.
Though he won’t be the reason the Edmonton Oilers 2019-20 campaign ends up being a success or failure, the performance/production James Neal delivers will go a long way in helping determine if the organization has a chance at reaching their lofty expectations…a return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Rob Soria is the Author of Connor McDavid: Hockey’s Next Great One. He has chronicled the Orange and Blue since creating his Oil Drop blog in 2011 and has also had his writings featured over at HometownHockey.ca and Vavel USA, where he has covered the NHL, MLB and ATP Tour. Rob was born, raised and still resides in Edmonton, Alberta and can be reached via twitter @Oil_Drop.