Flames’ Neal gets reality check; Gaudreau shrugs off playoff struggles

Calgary Flames left wing Johnny Gaudreau hangs his head near the end of the third period during NHL playoff action against the Colorado Avalanche in Calgary, Alta., Friday, Apirl 19, 2019. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

CALGARY – One fizzled when it mattered most and one never even got started.

One owned it and one didn’t.

There are few things connecting the seasons James Neal and Johnny Gaudreau had other than their nightmarish finishes.

Their season-ending thoughts on their shortcomings were just as diverse.

While Gaudreau wasn’t interested in taking ownership of his part in the team’s five-game face plant, Neal did everything but apologize for his season-long absence.

"That was hard," said Neal of a seven-goal season that paid him the first $5.75 million of his five-year deal.

"I’ve never had to go through that in my career. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but for me, I think going forward, you take it and be honest with yourself. Now I have a chance to train in the summer and come back, and I have something to prove. The last three years, they’ve been good years [with back-to-back appearances in the Cup final] but, that being said, you don’t have time to take care of your body and train in the summer. So I’ll try to take the positive. I’m healthy, and this is a chance for me to get back to where I know I can be and where I feel like I should be."

Gaudreau, who followed up a career-high 99 points with one assist in the playoffs, took a different tack.

"Same game I’ve been playing all my life – one team played better than the other team," shrugged Gaudreau when asked about his second-straight playoff appearance in which he was neutralized.

"Obviously, it was a good regular season. Playoff time came and I didn’t find the net a couple of times I should of.

It’s not what you hope for but something to learn from."

The indifference is troubling to many.

But not as concerning as Neal’s play, which saw the 31-year-old winger struggle from start to finish on a team he signed with to ride shotgun next to Gaudreau and Sean Monahan.

Incoming coach Bill Peters chose instead to give Elias Lindholm the plum opening-night assignment and rode it to career highs.

Meanwhile, Neal posted career lows while languishing on a third line and second power play he certainly didn’t deserve promotion from.

"I think I just never got that traction from the start and it kind of snowballed from there on, and never really got to where I wanted to be, or where I thought I could be," said Neal, who had 19 points in 63 games interrupted by a late lower-body injury.

"Moving forward, you have to look yourself in the mirror and you have to come back and be better.

"I want to be a top-6 guy who is counted on to score big goals and be an impact player. I’ve been like that my whole career, and I feel like you just don’t lose that. I’ve scored 20-plus goals in every one of my years except for this year, so I know I can get back to being that type of player and help this team out. It just starts with training properly and kind of putting this season behind me, but at the same time, learning from it and making sure it doesn’t happen again."

A weekly deep dive into the biggest hockey news in the world with hosts Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek. New episodes every Thursday.

Flames general manager Brad Treliving, who inked Neal to add scoring depth, size and playoff experience, said he had heart-to-hearts with Neal several times this year, including a long talk Monday.

"I would say James is very accountable," said Treliving.

"Listen, when we signed James last year, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to sit up here and say this is not exactly how we projected things to go. James didn’t sign here to be a scratch in Game 5 of the first round.

"When adversity hits you in life, do you sit there and suck your thumb? Or do you pull up your boot strings and say, ‘OK, we have to be better?’ I think he’s going to pull up his boot strings and be better, but how do we help him too? There are two parties involved in it — there’s the player and the team — and we both want him to be successful. So how do we get to that end-goal? And I think he’s real committed to obviously having a better year next year."

It would be hard for Gaudreau to have a better season next year — or a worse playoff. He likely garnered plenty of Hart Trophy consideration before the playoffs, and rightly so. But after failing to make an impact against Colorado he seemed content to shake it off.

"Hopefully, next year we’re in the same position we had this year in the post-season," he said of his club’s first-place finish.

"And when I’m getting my looks, finding the net and helping this team win."

You’d like to see a little more fight there.

Whether Neal will be able to revitalize his game after seeming incapable of keeping up, he said all the right things upon leaving town Monday. And that included admitting he and Peters butted heads at times.

"It was hard, but I’m a man about it," said Neal.

"We talked and I have to come in next year and be better. And I know that. There’s not one thing you can blame it on. Obviously, for me, I would have liked to play more and be counted on more, so hopefully moving forward that’s how it could be. I need to come in and be ready in camp, and I will be."

Being a healthy scratch for the first time in his career sure seemed to be the sort of reality check a fella can either sulk over or do something about. He insists he’ll be doing the latter.

"Obviously, it’s tough when you’re not producing like you should be, but that being said, our team was winning," said Neal.

"We were the best team in the West. So for me, I was just trying to get healthy and get ready and be an impact player in the playoffs. Obviously, that didn’t happen so I have to get back to where I need to be."

Gaudreau needs to find another gear too next spring.

Sure would have been nice to hear him say that.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.