With James Neal gone, some people have argued that Evgeni Malkin will play better hockey since he won't defer to Neal as often. I'm curious how much (if at all) Malkin actually deferred to James Neal while he was here. We can figure this out by comparing Malkin's stats from 2007-2011 (before he played with Neal) to his stats from 2012-2014 (when he had Neal as his partner).
I pulled the aggregate data from the Hockey Analysis database. I'm looking only at 5v5 play; Malkin deferring to Neal on the powerplay (assuming that even happened) makes sense because of Neal's deadly shot. The chart below compares goals, assists, and points for the 2007-2011 time range (without Neal) to the 2012-2014 time range (with Neal). Please click all images to enlarge them.
With James Neal, Malkin scored more goals/60, slightly fewer assists, and more overall points/60. By just looking at these numbers, we see that the narrative should be flipped: Malkin deferred less when he was with Neal because he was scoring more goals and points per sixty minutes of 5v5 play.
Some people think that Malkin started shooting less when he was with James Neal. We can pull the same aggregate data from Hockey Analysis and look at Malkin's shots on goal, Fenwick, and Corsi rates per sixty minutes of 5v5 play from 2007-2011 (without Neal) and 2012-2014 (with Neal).
Again, we see evidence that the narrative should be flipped: Malkin deferred less with Neal because he had more individual shots and fenwick events/60 when he was with James Neal. As to individual Corsi/60, Malkin only produced a hair less with Neal (14.57 Corsi/60 without Neal compared to 14.47 with him). But overall, Malkin was generally better with Neal because he was shooting more, contrary to the narrative that Neal held Malkin back by forcing him to defer.
The two graphs above compare Malkin's numbers before and after James Neal became a Penguin, which covers a seven-year span. But even in the three years where Malkin and Neal were on the same team (2012-2014), they spent some time apart. So digging into the WOWY numbers allows us to compare Malkin's points/60, goals/60, and shots/60 over the last three years during 5v5 play both with and without Neal on the ice. Remember, these are Malkin's stats from only the last three years.
The fact that Malkin benefitted from playing with Neal is even more pronounced here. Over the last three years, Malkin scored more goals and points per 60 minutes when he was with Neal, and he was far more aggressive in terms of shooting the puck when he had Neal on his right side.
We can also check to see how Malkin's possession numbers were affected by Neal over the last three years by pulling the WOWY data from the Hockey Analysis database.
Clearly Malkin and Neal put up elite numbers together. The surprising thing is how much Malkin craters when he is away from James Neal. Neal falls quite a bit too, but still has a 52.3% CF% away from Malkin, whereas Malkin isn't above 51%. This can't be explained by deployment either. If you compare Malkin and Neal in 2012, 2013, and 2014, Malkin had a better offensive zone start percentage every year (sometimes by more than four percentage points). Competition was very, very slightly in Malkin's favor, but likely not enough to make a difference. So we're left with this: despite better deployment away from Neal, Malkin's CF% dropped more than James Neal's when they were separated.
The takeaway is that Neal never hindered Malkin--Malkin didn't defer to Neal anymore than he deferred to his earlier linemates. In fact, Malkin's stats look much better with James Neal, which indicates that Malkin received a significant boost from playing with him. I'm sure Malkin will be fine with whoever his new linemates are, but the Penguins traded arguably the best regular linemate that Malkin has had in his eight-year career.