James Neal: Still “Real Deal” for Oilers?

When you look at the numbers over the last ten games, it’s not fair, by any means, to suggest the Edmonton Oilers struggles can be blamed on any one person. At the same time, it’s hard not to look at the recent stretch of games and wonder where the offense has gone from a player like James Neal?

Neal started the 2019-20 season like a house-on-fire and skyrocketed up the NHL standings, leading the league in goals. He’s still second in the league with 10 power play markers but if you look at his recent production, it’s worrying.

Neal’s got three points in the month of December. Worse yet, this comes on the heels of a month of November where he scored four points in 14 games. Have fans been watching two different players?

What’s Happened to Neal?

There are a few explanations as to what might be going on here. First, what’s happening to Neal is happening, in a manner of speaking, to almost every Oilers forward.

James Neal Edmonton Oilers
James Neal, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A poor goals-for versus goals-against ratio has hit the team and Neal has been arguably hit the hardest by a drop in scoring. Some of that comes with a lack of Edmonton’s top-six to shoot the puck, some of it comes with more time spent in the defensive zone and some of it comes with teams prepping for an Oilers roster that wasn’t supposed to be as good as they realized it might be after the season began.

The Oilers put some early points in the bank to start the season. They’ve settled in to what they might actually be as an organization since.

Second, Neal himself has come back down to Earth in terms of certain statistics like shooting percentage. In November, he posted a monstrous 26.2% shooting percentage but that number was cut by more than half to only 11.5% in November. So far, in December, his numbers have jumped back up a bit to 18% but he’s probably somewhere closer to the 11 than he is to the 26.

Finally, the Oilers have also used him less.

Going from over 243 minutes in October to a month of November where the Oilers dropped him to 216 minutes in the same number of games, Edmonton chose to use others where he might have been a shoe-in before. Call it the Oilers trying to balance out the lines or trying to boost certain players like Alex Chiasson, Neal has seen the consequences of those decisions.

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Should the Oilers Be Worried?

When you look down Highway 2 towards the Calgary area, fans are starting to see a player in Milan Lucic go on a hot streak. Lucic was the piece Edmonton moved to acquire Neal and while Lucic spent the first 20 games of this NHL season doing not much more than getting himself in trouble, the Flames and Lucic have turned things around. The natural tendency of fans might be to panic a little.

James Neal Edmonton Oilers Jonathan Quick Los Angeles Kings
James Neal of the Edmonton Oilers screens goaltender Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Alas, this is not to suggest the Oilers made a poor decision. No one should be second-guessing this trade. Neal is the more prolific of the two scorers, he’s already seeing a slight rebound in December and the Oilers will start to go to the well more often, deploying what they know in terms of line combinations. Coach Dave Tippett needs to rely on his trusted players to try and improve on-ice results. Neal will see more ice time as a result.

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He’s Still the Real Deal

Neal has already destroyed the abysmal season he had last year in Calgary. He’s on his way to his regular Neal-like numbers with plenty of season left to go.

He may not be the player that lit up the NHL in October, but he’s certainly a 20-goal man on a team that could really use a 20-goal top-six forward right about now. He’s the real deal, even if his last few games haven’t suggested as much.

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