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Beyond choosing a starting goaltender for the playoffs (I think it should be David Rittich, but that's a story for another day), perhaps the biggest decision Bill Peters has looming is what to do with James Neal when he's healthy and ready to return to the lineup.
The 31-year-old winger has been a massive disappointment to date, contributing just five goals and 15 points in 55 games while, at times, looking completely checked out in the process.
As underwhelming as the early returns of the signing are, I have no doubt the Flames will continue to play him in hopes of re-establishing his game. I mean, they didn't commit $28.75 million over five years to have him sit on the sidelines.
So where should the Flames start Neal when he returns? Great question, I'm glad you asked.
I think the Flames will keep the top line intact, and I think they should do the same with 3M. They've played great of late, and you want a shutdown line like that for important games down the stretch and in the playoffs.
That brings us to the 3rd line. The Flames are currently trotting out Sam Bennett, Mark Jankowski, and Austin Czarnik on a nightly basis. Barring a dip in performance, I think they should continue to do so.
Bennett and Jankowski have posted some really impressive numbers with Czarnik on the right side – much better than when Neal holds that spot.
Though both lines own negative goal differentials, 3rd line+Czarnik is only minus-1 despite being held back by an unsustainably low .918 PDO. They deserve much better results than they've gotten, and those results will come if they continue to dominate the shot and chance share as they have to date. I wouldn't break them up.
That leaves the 4th line of Andrew Mangiapane, Derek Ryan, and Garnet Hathaway. They have also played well – they own a 54.74 CF% and 64.75 SCF% over ~150 minutes – but, if a change has to be made, it's the 4th I'd alter.
More specifically, I'd replace Hathaway for Neal. Though the former has been better of late, he's still not very involved in terms of driving play up ice or producing once shop is set up in the offensive zone. Neal isn't exactly a neutral zone god, either, but he is better in that area and makes the 4th line more of a threat to score.
Mangiapane and Ryan can both create shots and are willing to defer to linemates, and I think that could benefit a shoot-first (shoot-only?) player like Neal as well.
Will it work? Maybe, maybe not, but I think the Flames would be smart to find out.
Numbers via NaturalStatTrick.com.
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