When I told my girlfriend I was going to write something on how hot James Neal was, the first thing she said was that Roman Josi is hotter. I can’t say I disagree with her on that point. Though most women I know vote for Mike Fisher as the hottest player on the team. And while it’s debatable which of the Nashville Predators is the best looking, one thing that is not debatable is James Neal’s incredible play through the first eight games of the season.
Anyway, after studying the season so far with a group of crack scientists and mathematicians, I have discovered that Neal is in fact having a hot start to the year, which is exactly what he needed after last season’s mediocre performance.
Last season Neal played in 67 games and finished with 23 goals and 14 assists for a total of 37 points, which isn’t really the output you want from a guy you’re paying $5 million a year. The three seasons prior, Neal finished as almost a point per game player with 178 points in 179 games. 37 points just isn’t going to cut it when you come in with those kinds of expectations, especially when the organization traded away one of its more popular players (Patric Hornqvist) to acquire him.
Neal took a decent beating from analysts in the off-season who rightly noted his declining performance last year. However, point totals alone didn’t tell the whole story. Just by the eye test, I thought James Neal played pretty well last season. He fought for pucks, played some pretty solid defense, and made some plays happen. When he came from Pittsburgh, all I heard was that he wasn’t a playmaker, he was only a sniper, and I saw some real playmaking ability out of him last year.
Also, last season his Corsi For percentage was 57.3 and +6.2% relative to the rest of the team, which means that a lot more shots were getting fired when he was on the ice. His shooting percentage last year was 10.4%, which is 1.9% under his career average. The difference there accounts for about 4.5 goals over the course of the season.
When you take in the totatlity of what happened last season, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that
it was probably a fluke. New system, new teammates, new conference, lowered shooting percentage, and just 14 assists, which is his lowest total since posting 13 in his rookie season. A lot of factors were working against him, and he still scored 23 goals, not to mention his four goals and one assist in the playoff series against Chicago.
Coming into this season, opposing teams can no longer exclusively key on Neal like they did last year. They also have to keep Filip Forsberg in mind. Forsberg has had another year to grow and is becoming an even stronger player, which opens up more room for Neal to work. He’s also had an entire year to adjust to his teammates, new city, new coach, and new system; so James Neal’s hot start really shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Neal has six goals and three assists through eight games. He’s also riding a five-game point streak after being held off of the scoresheet for the first three. Last season his longest point streak was just four games.
Looking at possession metrics, Neal is killing it right now. He’s sitting at a ridiculous +11.1% in relative Corsi and +13.4% in relative Fenwick. That’s actually kind of insane. Those numbers will probably dip just a little bit, but they’re still great numbers either way.
With the chemistry Neal has shown with Forsberg, I don’t see any reason that James Neal can’t keep up a high level of production throughout the year. Is he going to keep up a point per game pace over the course of the season? Probably not to be honest. He’s a bit streaky and the Predators don’t have the same firepower that Pittsburgh has.
However, it’s not inconceivable for him to eclipse 30 goals this year and sit somewhere around 30-35 assists. He should definitely be in the mix for the team lead in points by the time the smoke clears. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him suiting up in Nashville for the All-Star game. It’s a definite possibility if he can keep this level of play going for a while, and I think that he can.
More from Predlines
- Nashville Predators 2023 Training Camp Spotlight: Kiefer Sherwood
- Captain Candidates if Nashville Predators Didn’t Have Roman Josi
- The All-Time 25 Games or Less Nashville Predators Lineup
- Nashville Predators 2023 Training Camp Spotlight: Cody Glass
- Joakim Kemell Flashes his Offense in Nashville Predators Loss to Tampa