For Oilers GM Ken Holland, acquiring James Neal was a deal he made by the book. The National Hockey League’s Guide and Record Book.
“The Guide and Record Book says that James Neal scores goals,” began Holland, the morning after he’d made the most significant change in his new gig, shipping out Milan Lucic and bringing in Neal. “I know, he had a bad year last year. What’s the Guide and Record Book going to say four years from now? I don’t know.
“But I look at what we have down the middle, with McDavid, Draisaitl and Nugent-Hopkins, and two of those players can trade offence, create scoring opportunities for their wingers. If we give James Neal scoring opportunities, and he’ll need ice time, the Guide and Record Book says he can score.”
Unfortunately, the Guide and Record Book is a historical tome that includes every tiny bit of National Hockey League minutiae from the days of Newsy Lalonde right up to the present. What it does not do is predict the future, and there lies the rub with Neal.
The LW/RW scored 20-plus goals in each of his first 10 NHL seasons. Last season in Calgary however, he had just seven.
He is 31, which means the 2018-19 campaign was one of two things: a glitch in a long, consistent career of filling NHL nets, or the erosion of an ageing player whose best days are behind him.
How do we know which is the case?
“It was tough, for sure,” Neal said over the phone from Nashville, where he maintains a residence from his three seasons as a Predator. “You want to do well (after signing a UFA deal in Calgary), but coming off back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, trying to train and get ready for the season, it’s not the same. For me, having this summer, being able to regroup, recharge, and let your mind rest then come back focused and reset, it goes a long ways.”
How do we know if it was a blip or a trend?
“Everyone has a tough year,” Neal said. “I’m a goal scorer, I demand the best out of myself and my teammates. I want to win.
“Sitting on the bench (in Calgary) and not being able to help the team score goals and win … it was tough. I’ll be in those situations this year,” he said. “With the way the changes have gone in Edmonton, with Dave Tippett coming in … and Ken Holland, it’s exciting times. I’m proud to be an Oiler.”
Calgary needed some toughness, and got that in spades with Lucic. Edmonton needed top-six wingers, and Neal will get every chance to prove he is still one of those, either on the right side with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, or perhaps more likely, next to Ryan Nugent-Hopkins on the second line.
“You look at the team with Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid, you say, ‘Man, we have half of a top six,’” Holland said. “Then you’ve got Kassian, Gagner, Chiasson… We need a guy who can shoot left with potential to play in the top six.”
“The best part about it is,” said Neal, who trains under Gary Roberts with McDavid in the summertime, “you can fit in with any one of those guys. They all like to move the puck, and me being a shooter, you’ve just got to get open.
“I know Connor very well — I’ve seen him since he was a young kid. He’s just on another level from anyone else, a great, great hockey player and a great person too. I see the work he puts in, how much he wants to win, and when you have a guy like that leading you, the Oilers are heading in the right direction.”
So were the Flames, and somehow, Neal wasn’t a fit there. His goal is to make sure that doesn’t become a trend.
If he succeeds, Holland will have turned Lucic into the top-six winger he so dearly required.