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Happily Ever Or Happily Never?

How James Neal Stacks Up Against Another Veteran Signing Who Struggled Early: He Who Shall Not Be Named

NHL: Washington Capitals at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Is it too early to hit the panic button on James Neal? Absolutely it is.

He’s an aging player coming off a respectable but not amazing 40-point campaign, so how much scoring do we really expect? He’s got a high-money large-term contract for his age and production, we can’t expect him to live up to that right out of the gate right?

He’s getting lots of powerplay time, the production will show up eventually won’t it? And besides, scoring isn’t the point. He’s a wily veteran, a team leader, and a good dressing room guy. That’s what really counts for older players, right? Not points... right?

We’ve recently seen a scenario where we heard that for two straight years, and by the time the repetitive rhetoric wore off, it was two years too late. When the panic button was finally hit, it resulted in a buyout and a nasty parting of ways that not only cost the team big money while it was an active contract, but money after the fact for a player who isn’t even lacing up the skates for your team anymore.

That story’s name became a dirty word in the Calgary marketplace. And as I’m sure we all still have nightmares about it, it wasn’t a happy story. Or a happily ever after ending, as the Calgary Sun unceremoniously kicked it in the ass on the way out of town.

That story’s name was Troy Brouwer. And as we’re about to take a look, it’s a story more familiar than we thought we’d see to this point in the season with another acquisition... yes, The Real Deal, James Neal.

Coming In “Hot”:

Both James Neal and Troy Brouwer were high profile Canada Day signings touted for their veteran presence, leadership, and clutch scoring moreso than overall scoring prowess. We can certainly see the parallels in the age, scoring and contract between Neal and Brouwer entering their first years with the Flames. There’s naturally a worry about money and term to the contracts for players on the back end of their careers, as was at least a discussion with Brouwer when he was first signed but not so much with Neal. With a less-than-expected start of three goals and a single assist in the first sixteen games played of the year, Neal is actually currently on pace to put up less points over an 82 game campaign than Brouwer managed to hit in a season he played 74 games in.

The “Brouwerplay” vs The Lack-of-Power-play:

One of the biggest knocks Brouwer faced in his first (and second) year in Calgary was the seemingly unfounded large amount of powerplay minutes he was seeing. The complaints were loud from across the fanbase: How could a player older and slower than any number of other players on the roster be seeing so much man advantage time? At what point do you cut them loose from those high quality minutes when they clearly can’t take advantage of them? Despite his perceived lack of production, Brouwer averaged 2:24 of PP TOI per game in his first season. As I’m sure most of us forgot, he actually scored 11 Powerplay Points that season, 5 of which were Powerplay Goals. Yet, having him on the powerplay was a regular angry sticking point for most observers of the team. What’s surprising here is the opposite perception is happening for Neal this season. He’d score more if he saw more man advantage minutes, wouldn’t he? Quite to the surprise of most, James Neal is actually averaging more powerplay minutes this year than Brouwer did in his first. Thirteen seconds more, in fact, at 2:37 PP TOI per game. Yet despite seeing more time, he has registered zeros across the board and is of course on pace for the same.

“It’s Not About The Points, He’s Good In The Room.”

“We knew, going out to get Troy, that he was a leader, so that started way back... what type of presence he was in the locker-room and how guys looked to him... We’re going in a direction and he’s going to be with us for a while and he’s won a Stanley Cup and he’s played on some great teams and he was a great voice in our locker-room.

-Glen Gulutzan on Troy Brouwer, Calgary Herald October 12th 2016

And we’ve all heard that one before. The consistent cover for Brouwer was that you can’t put a price on leadership, and slowly, rightly or wrongly, that narrative is starting to trickle out for Neal as he faces the same early-season conundrum. Because just in case you were worried about the numbers, don’t. HE’S GOT INTANGIBLES.

Expectations:

Now maybe the team narrative is correct. Maybe is isn’t about the production, even at such bloated salaries. At this point in his career, James Neal is a long way from his Malkin-linemate days. There’s no denying he’s a 20-rather-than-50 goal a year guy in 2018 (his career high is 40 in a season, reached once six years ago). Strictly by the basic math, if he’s only going to score 20 times a season, that means there’s a whole 62 games in which he’ll be held off the scoresheet. If he manages any multi-goal games on the way to the 20-goal plateau, that number drops to even less than that. So why be worried sixteen games in? If he’s going to go through droughts like that, the idea bringing him is in that most of that scoring would lump together in the stretch drive and playoffs when it would matter the most. And if/when the happened, nobody is going to remember a slow start.

The Point:

Now not by any stretch of the imagination is this meant to suggest that Troy Brouwer (even at his best) is better than James Neal (even at his worst, which this might be). This is a scratch-the-surface comparison and naturally Neal’s underlying numbers and gameplay lend only to him turning things around sooner than later.

What it does show that you’d have to squint pretty hard to not see the comparisons and at least be a little worried that Brad Treliving might have stepped right into another contract disaster. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, but the early writing is on the wall and most folk seem much less unnerved and much less quiet about it than when it was Troy Brouwer instead of the Guy With The Cool NickName Who Makes More Money And Is On Pace For Less Points.

The conundrum here is does it fix itself, or can it be fixed? I’m of the belief the Flames tried hard to move away from “Top6-Bottom6” and more towards rolling four lines in “Top9+Energy Line” format this offseason. In that sense, it’s not like he’s lost in a wasteland anywhere outside of the top two lines. Is a 31 year old hopefully 40 point player the guy who you really want on your top line, and at the possible expense of red-hot Elias Lindholm who fits in your core group’s age? Is a 31 year old hopefully 40 point player the kind of guy you want to put ahead of the 3M and MMA combinations in the optimistic chance of pulling one or two more decent years out of him? Because if you want to leave those lines alone, you’ve always got the option of boosting him with the powerplay... oh wait.

We’ve asked these kinds of questions before for two straight years of Troy Brouwer, and the Flames never could find an answer. I’m not a coach or GM, so I won’t venture any further into trying to answer those questions. And well I do have faith that the people that get paid to fix these issues, and The Real Deal himself, do indeed find a way, sometimes that Happily Never After ending is still creeping up on you.

And sometimes, the fairy tale turn to Happily Ever is just around the corner.

Here’s to the best for James Neal. From all of our past heartbreak to you, please make us forget all about that other guy.