Some eyebrows got raised when the Calgary Flames made James Neal a healthy scratch on Friday night for Game 5 of their first round playoff series against the Colorado Avalanche. Neal, Calgary’s big free agent signing of 2018, still has four season to go on his contract worth an annual cap hit of $5.75 million dollars. Neal had a terrible year in Calgary, scoring just 9 goals in 63 games this season, almost an unbelievably bad output for a skilled scorer who recorded 21+ goals in all 10 of his previous NHL seasons prior to joining the Flames.
So instantly, the thought has to pop up - could Neal (32 years old before the start of next season) be a fit back with the Penguins where he scored 184 points in 199 regular season games from 2011-14? After all, there was chemistry and a lot of success for the player here.
It doesn’t take a lot of wheel-turning to combine the idea of maybe flipping the disappointing Neal and his bad contract for another bad contract for Pittsburgh to shed Jack Johnson. Both players have four years remaining and are eating up more money than their contributions made in 2018-19.
But to throw some cold water on this reasonable idea, as the Sunshine Scooter Lee Corso likes to say — not so fast my friend.
The Flames already have five defensemen under contract next year for $3.5+ million on a cap hit. plus young players they like such as Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki who have become NHL regulars. They have simply no need for an overpaid (and not very good) aging veteran like Johnson just to move out another bad contract up front in Neal.
But could it get fancy to include more? Maybe it would be ironic, and about a salary neutral move to trade, to send Patric Hornqvist and Johnson for Neal and a player like Michael Stone. Ironic since Neal and Hornqvist were traded for each other once before in 2014 between Pittsburgh and Nashville.
Fancy ideas rarely come to fruition in reality when dreaming up a potential trade (even though the money and value seems reasonable for both teams). Plus Hornqvist’s contract affords him an eight team no-trade clause that may or may not include a western outpost like Calgary, which would certainly stop any potential expanded deal like this in its tracks.
So while a lot of logistics make this idea a pipe-dream let’s also remember that James Neal was traded from the Pens for a reason. Though he did score 40 goals in the 2011-12 season riding shotgun with Evgeni Malkin, Neal’s reckless penalties made him a liability in those same 2012 playoffs, among other times.
For chemistry and just overall “be a good person” factors, Neal was purposefully traded away from Pittsburgh back in 2014 — the team felt better shipping him out despite his talent. Would they suddenly want him back, especially now that they’re in a rut and looking to improve general team cohesiveness? Seems unlikely even disregarding the very real other reasons why such a trade wouldn’t be consummated in 2019.
Beyond that, the question needs to be asked that what does Neal still have left in the gas tank? As mentioned, Neal will turn 32 years old before next season, well past the typical aging curve of a sniper at the NHL level. That’s been reflected in his stats, too. Neal scored 27 goals and recorded 61 points (in just 57 games) in his last season in Pittsburgh at age 26 in 2013-14. Since then he hasn’t topped that season point total, and he has only exceeded that 27 goals once in the five seasons since leaving Pittsburgh. All the while picking up several injuries and dealing with the natural progression of time along the way in the last five years. That all adds up to tell us he is well past his expected prime for point production now as he enters his mid-30s.
So it is more than fair to say that they James Neal that we see today in 2019 is not the 40-goal scorer James Neal of 2012 that Pens’ fans might remember so fondly, his chemistry with Malkin notwithstanding. Another unavoidable factor is the contract — Neal is signed for his age 32-35 season at that $5.75 million cap hit that’s already looking awful at the moment, and only promises to get worse as he continues to age and figures to see a continuing gradual decline of his skills and production.
The Penguins should definitely explore all available options and avenues to dump Jack Johnson if they want to improve their team for 2019-20, and will likely have to take back a not-go-good contract to be able and shed four more years of JJ. But James Neal at his contract, age, production and injury history is not a good alternative. Then factor in Calgary absolutely not needing to swap Neal for an over-paid (and bad) aging defensemen in Johnson and the match just isn’t there for either party.
While it’s a good idea to pop into mind, especially with Neal a healthy scratch in playoffs like Johnson was for the Pens, it just doesn’t go much further than that as a fit for either team. The Pens shouldn’t consider adding James Neal again at this point of his career — there’s too much baggage in the form of attitude, declining production, aging and injury risk and his contract term.