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Is James Neal the Real Deal?

May 21, 2014, 8:42 PM ET [324 Comments]
Ryan Wilson
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As the Penguins head in to the offseason there are a number of issues they need to address. Owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle have said that character and grit should be at the forefront.

There have also been rumors about a significant player on the roster asking for a trade from the Penguins.

Combine these two things together and it seems appropriate to bring James Neal’s name up.

James Neal is a dynamic goal scorer and has one of the best releases in all of hockey. He is also a dirty hockey player guilty of numerous cheap shots on the ice. Given the owners desire to add grit and character you might think that even if James Neal isn’t the player who asked for a trade the Penguins might be willing to move him anyways.

One common criticism of Neal’s on ice play is that he is unable to create for himself when he does not have Evgeni Malkin centering him. Instead of taking that assumption as gospel I decided I would look into the numbers further. I went through James Neal’s entire Penguins career and separated the statistics he earned while Malkin was in the lineup vs. when Malkin was out of the lineup. The stats I compiled included goals, assists, points, as well as Fenwick for and Fenwick against in close game states.

Here is what I found:

Neal’s .52 goals per game over an 82 game season would amount to a 43 goal campaign. Neal has 72 goals in 139 games played with Malkin.

Neal averages .28 goals per game without Malkin and that would amount to a 23 goal season. Neal has 17 goals in 60 games played with Malkin.

While it is not a surprise to see a dip statistically when playing away from an all world talent like Malkin, you would like to see somebody with Neal’s release create a little more for himself in the goal department.

Neal’s points per game with Malkin is 1.01 which over an 82 game season is 83 points. Neal has 141 points in 139 games played with Malkin.

His points per game average without Malkin in the lineup is .72 which would amount to a 59 point season. Neal has played in 60 games without Malkin and has 43 points in those contests. Being a 60 point player is certainly not a terrible thing.

*This chart does not include the 20 games Neal played for the Penguins in 2010-2011, the individual game data does not go back that far. This chart includes all games from 2011-2014.

During this time period when Neal is with Malkin his possession numbers are lights out. He has a Fenclose of 56.0% (980 FF/771 FA) which is a terrific number. Also impressive are his possession numbers without Malkin, 53.3% (242 FF/193 FA). That is nothing to sneeze at either.

The numbers show what most of us already believe, James Neal is a much better player with Evgeni Malkin than he is without him. However, the numbers also show that Neal is still a good hockey player without Malkin.

While his numbers without Malkin certainly aren’t staggering, they are certainly not terrible either.

The Penguins may want to move on from Neal for his perceived character issues but they can’t just move him for the sake of moving him. You have a better chance of winning the Cup with a “bad character guy” that has high end talent than you do with a “character guy” who can’t put up numbers in a top 6 role. Just think if the Blackhawks had moved Patrick Kane a few years back, doubtful they win their 2nd Cup. Mind you I’m not comparing Kane and Neal as players, but just the highlighting concept of keeping high end talent. You need it to win championships.

The Penguins are not blessed with top end winger depth at the present time and they need all the help they can get in that area. Any potential Neal trade must address what the Penguins would lose with moving Neal. They need to find a trade that is top 6 winger for top 6 winger. It’s easier said than done and if the Penguins can’t find a match they should just keep Neal.

The good news is that the Penguins do have Evgeni Malkin and that James Neal can continue to play with him. If the Penguins can’t find the right deal for James Neal they should sit back until they do.

Thanks for reading!

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