Flames’ Neal finding ‘Real Deal’ form could be all the boost team needs

Watch as James Neal loses a couple teeth after Alex Biega’s swing at the puck missed and connected with the Flames forward’s mouth.

SUNRISE, Fla. — Like most playoff-bound teams in the NHL, the Calgary Flames approach the trade deadline in search of a proven goal-scorer to add depth to their offensive arsenal.

Ideally they’d love a 20- to 30-goal threat who has been through the grind of an extensive playoff run or two, with the capability of scoring big goals in the biggest games.

Sound familiar? Turns out they already landed that guy.

His name is James Neal.

“That’s a good way of putting it,” smiled GM Brad Treliving in the midst of a typically busy day working the phones and kicking tires. “You’re right. To get James back to what he’s been all of his career would be a good add… and you don’t have to give up anything.”

The question is, can he find a way to be the real deal?

If Neal was playing as he has the previous 10 seasons, there’d be less trade talk linking the Flames with deadline gems like Mark Stone, Mats Zuccarello or even Artemi Panarin.

Given the competition to land any of them, the price tag would be considerable. Creating cap space would be hard and the debate over whether the Flames are ready to start pushing their chips in intensifies.

Maybe the Flames don’t need to do anything of the sort.

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Maybe the answer is the man wearing No. 18, who the Flames already shelled out considerable cash to acquire last summer. The $5.75-million man with 100 playoff games and 31 post-season goals on his extensive spring resumé certainly believes so.

“At the end of the day, I’ll be ready to go,” said Neal, 31, whose well-documented struggles this year have seen the perennial 20-goal-scorer pot just five as a Flame. “The season starts our first game of the playoffs. That’s when everything starts ramping up, and I’ll be ready to go for that and that’s where I want to be.

“They’re big games and like I said right from the beginning, I want to win, I came here to win and we’ve got a great group of guys and we’ve had a great year so far.

“You can have good years but obviously the biggest thing is playing good in the playoffs.

“I’ve played in the playoffs a lot and been through a lot of different playoff series and ups and downs and can use my playoff experience to help out.”

Not to sugarcoat what has been a disappointing campaign for Neal, but the six-foot-three, 212-pound winger has been more noticeable of late. Logging 15 minutes a night on the third line and second power-play unit, Neal has been more engaged as part of a recent string that has seen him pick up three assists his last four outings.

“It has taken him a little bit of time to fit in and be a part of it,” admitted Treliving of an adjustment for Neal, who is coming off of back-to-back losses in the Stanley Cup Final. “He’s a really popular guy amongst his group. You can almost feel the juice coming for him this time of the year — this is when guys like him get going. So, hopefully…”

To finish his thought, hopefully he won’t have to throw significant assets at addressing a secondary scoring issue he addressed extensively last summer.

“If we can help ourselves outside of that, we’d like to, but it’s all got to make sense too,” added Treliving, who is also sure to be monitoring deadline price tags on depth defencemen and goaltenders, should his duo falter.”

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In the meantime the club has worked extensively with Neal to try getting the most out of their five-year, $28.75-million summer signing.

“As we do with every guy,” said Treliving, well aware Neal has shone in virtually every playoff run he’s ever been part of, dating back to junior.

“The one thing with him is he’s a veteran guy so he knows what he needs more than maybe a younger guy. Even those guys too, you’ve got to help them — it’s not like you just say, ‘He’s been there before, just leave him alone.

“It’s the first time he’s been in Canada and the first time he’s played in a place where everybody talks about him at breakfast, about how he looked at practice and what line he’s on and all that.

“It’s an adjustment for him but I’m really encouraged by what I’ve seen of late. He’s trending.”

Neal signed with the Flames because they were the highest bidders, a team with great promise AND he’d have a chance to play on the top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

Alas, Elias Lindholm was handed the prized gig Day 1 and has flourished in the role, leaving Neal with third line duties alongside Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett of late.

“I think we’re just getting better,” said Neal of his line, which will be altered slightly in Florida tonight when Bennett moves up to the second unit and Andrew Mangiapane slides onto line three.

“We’re in the offensive zone lots and getting chances. Looking forward, as we continue to get better, I think we’ll be ready for the playoffs.”


If so, the Flames could do some damage this spring. If not, the pressure on the team’s top line may become overwhelming.

“You’d like to be scoring lots and putting up lots of points, but we’re near the top in the west and that’s all that matters,” said Neal, who has 15 points in 54 outings, while also suffering through a dental mishap Saturday that cost him eight teeth.

“As we go on here, I feel more and more comfortable. It’s never easy going from new team to new team to new team and I’m feeling more and more comfortable.”

For a former 40-goal-scorer who has a career shooting percentage of 11.7 per cent, it’s hard to fathom how his 121 shots this year have only found twine 4.1 per cent of the time.

“There’s definitely times the puck is not going in — it’s bouncing and jumping over your stick, but that’s hockey,” said Neal when asked if he feels snake-bitten.

“You’ve just got to bear down and put a smile on your face. If you miss those chances and things don’t go right and you’re losing game after game, it will wear on you. But when you come into the dressing room afterwards and we’re excited and we got a big two points, that stuff goes away.”

Yet the trade talk continues, with whispers of trying fill the role Neal was originally brought in to play.

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