CALGARY – The James Neal signing is now officially a bust.
The 31-year-old winger, who was brought in to be a difference-maker in the playoffs, will be replaced in the Calgary Flames‘ lineup for the biggest game of the season.
Coach Bill Peters confirmed Neal’s third-line spot for Game 5 on Friday will be filled by Austin Czarnik, who will play alongside Mark Jankowski and Michael Frolik.
From a $28.75-million signing on July 2 to a healthy scratch in one season.
Just four more years to go on a deal paying him $5.75 million a year.
The fact that he’s being replaced by a 26-year-old who will make his NHL playoff debut says plenty about how ineffective Neal has been these playoffs and this season.
Coming off a seven-goal season in which the perennial 20-goal scorer had just 19 points, the hope was that Neal might be able to salvage his season by coming alive in the playoffs.
He suggested as much.
However, following a few opening shifts in the series against the Colorado Avalanche when he threw his 212-pound frame around well, he has been invisible.
No points, seven shots on goal, minus three and 11 hits despite seeing nearly 14 minutes of ice-time a game, including on the second power play.
His lack of speed is clearly problematic in today’s NHL game.
Not only that, there was no evidence of the pushback Neal had shown in back-to-back seasons in the Stanley Cup final. No bite.
Scrums don’t appear to be his thing this year.
A passenger in every sense of the word.
This is the right move, albeit probably a few games too late.
If the Flames’ season ends tonight or in the next handful of days, the timing of his benching sets up a fascinating off-season in which heavy pressure will be put on Neal to arrive in camp a new man, with a new attitude and approach.
Neal will have to try reinventing himself, as Sam Bennett came to terms with very effectively, as his scoring touch and ability to get chances have disappeared.
Perhaps it was a one-year blip.
The Flames hope so.
For now, the man who got the benefit of the doubt all season long due to his prolific past and lengthy playoff runs, will have to hope the Flames dig out of their 3-1 series hole against the Avalanche and that it might give him another chance this year.
Otherwise, it’s going to be a longer summer for the perennial playoff star than he ever fathomed.
Neal’s 104 games of playoff experience made up almost half of what the whole Flames roster has, giving him a prominent role in the dressing room of late as he spoke to players about how to prepare and what to expect.
On the ice, it hasn’t translated for him.
The concept behind signing Neal to add scoring depth and experience last summer was a sound one, although the price tag and term had many concerned he’d eventually be Calgary’s Milan Lucic.
That has become a reality much sooner than anyone could have predicted, as the $6-million Lucic had an almost identical six goals and 20 points this season.
Peters wasn’t interested in being candid about how obvious it was Neal wasn’t contributing.
"Any time you bring a guy in, someone’s got to come out," said Peters.
"It’s hard. Every decision you make is impactful one way or another. Tough decision. We spent a lot of time on it the last few days. We think it’s the right move to make at this time. We’ve got to play our best game tonight, so we’re putting our best foot forward."
Mark Giordano was diplomatic as well, as players always are when a fellow teammate goes through the embarrassment of being lifted from a crucial game.
"You never want to see one of your teammates go through anything like that and not be able to get in," said the Flames captain.
"We’ll see what happens. We’re trying different things obviously because we lost three in a row and it’s do or die right now for us. We’re trying to get some energy and get back to our game. We know we can do that."
NOTES: Peters will make two other roster moves, elevating Bennett to the top line with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, bumping Elias Lindholm down to the second line where he Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk will be assigned to shut down Nathan MacKinnon.