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Buying low and managing expectations

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NHL: New York Rangers at Nashville Predators Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Oilers made a sensible deal last week acquiring forward James Neal from the Calgary Flames in exchange for Milan Lucic. For a minor fee, the Oilers were able to bring on a forward that has a better chance of bouncing back, considering the drop in his shooting percentage last season compared to his career average, and they also gained some much needed cap flexibility in the future if they need to buy-out the remaining years of the contract. The Flames slightly reduced their cap-hit and also shed some real dollars, but I still can’t understand why they were so desperate to move Neal that they would take on a heavy, burdensome contract like Lucic’s.

Below are Neal’s even-strength (5v5) stats since 2008/09, including his total goals, assists, points, shots, shots per hour and individual shooting percentage.

Season Team GP TOI G-A-P Shots Shots/60 Sh%
2008/09 DAL 77 949.37 15-11-26 126 7.96 11.90
2009/10 DAL 78 1064.82 22-19-41 148 8.34 14.86
2010/11 DAL/PIT 79 1119.63 16-18-34 157 8.41 10.19
2011/12 PIT 80 1134.65 22-26-48 208 11.00 10.58
2012/13 PIT 40 514.70 11-7-18 93 10.84 11.83
2013/14 PIT 59 802.70 14-17-31 153 11.44 9.15
2014/15 NSH 67 950.97 16-13-29 170 10.73 9.41
2015/16 NSH 82 1248.35 24-13-37 197 9.47 12.18
2016/17 NSH 70 978.22 15-9-24 148 9.08 10.14
2017/18 VGK 71 992.12 17-12-29 156 9.43 10.90
2018/19 CGY 63 784.55 5-8-13 108 8.26 4.63

What we know about Neal is that his point production has gradually declined, with his most recent season being his absolute worst. What especially stands out is his individual shooting percentage of 4.63% last season, an anomaly over the course of his career and well below his career average prior to the 2018/19 season (11.11%). Knowing that individual shooting percentages typically regress towards the mean over time, there’s a decent chance Neal’s bounces back next season. How much of a bounce-back depends of course on the player’s aging, as well as the situations (i.e., teammates, competition, zone starts, etc) that the player will be in.

While the Oilers hope that Neal’s 2018/19 season was an anomaly, it’s worth noting that his overall play has gradually declined even prior to his arrival in Calgary. Looking at his relative-to-team stats over the last five years, we see that his more recent teams have done better without him at even-strength than with him. The graph below includes relative to team Corsi For% (CF% – proportion of shot attempts, a proxy for possession), Fenwick For% (FF% – proportion of unblocked shot attempts, a proxy for scoring chances), Scoring Chances For% (SCF% – as defined by Natural Stat Trick), and High Danger Scoring Chances For% (HDCF% – as defined by Natural Stat Trick).

For instance, in his single season in Vegas in 2017/18, the Golden Knights posted a 50.51% Corsi For percentage at even-strength with Neal on the ice, but a slightly better proportion of shot attempts without him. Relative to the team, Neal was a -0.51 Corsi-rel, which must have been a little disappointing for the Vegas coaching staff considering he received top-six minutes (finished fourth on the team among forwards in ice time per game with 13:58) and he always posted solid numbers with and without star players in Pittsburgh and Nashville. Vegas also did better without Neal when it came to scoring chances, a trend that continued and got worse in Calgary.

What’s interesting about Neal’s stint in Calgary is that he finished seventh on the team among forwards in ice time per game (12:27), most often playing in the bottom six with Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett. His reduced playing time might have to do with the fact that against elite players, his on-ice numbers had been in decline. (Data: Puck IQ)

Season Team TOI TOI% CF% (Rel) DFF% GF%
2014/15 NSH 335.98 35.42 53.6 (+5.40) 51.9 (+0.90) 57.10
2015/16 NSH 470.25 37.74 55.8 (+8.00) 60.2 (+9.50) 71.40
2016/17 NSH 315.08 32.34 48.4 (-1.60) 48.1 (-2.50) 39.10
2017/18 VGK 378.37 38.05 44.9 (-6.40) 43.4 (-12.70) 41.70
2018/19 CGY 223.90 28.54 52.4 (-0.60) 47.9 (-5.10) 50.00

The table above includes Neal’s numbers against elite talent, as defined by Puck IQ. Included is Neal’s on-ice Corsi For percentage and relative to team mates number, as well as Dangerous Fenwick (DFF%), which is a “weighted shot metric using shot distance location and type of shot to give each shot a danger value”, and goals-for percentage (GF%).

In Nashville, and prior to that, Neal was playing often against the other team’s top end players, spending over 35% of his ice time at even-strength in these situations and faring quite well relative to his teammates. In 2016/17 however, while playing 32.3% of his time against top end talent and finishing second on the team among forwards in ice time per game, he posted a 48.40% Corsi For percentage in these situations, which was a drop relative to his teammates (-3.73). When he was left unprotected by the Predators in the expansion draft and went to Vegas, things got even worse as he again played often against elite talent but posted a very poor 44.90% Corsi For percentage, or a -6.40 relative to his teammates. The Flames coaching staff may have been aware of his declining performance against high end talent and his poor goal-share as they deployed him far less frequently against elites (28.5% of his even-strength ice time spent against them) and did see him post a very solid 52.40% Corsi For percentage (-0.60 relative to teammates) and a 50.0% goal-share. Unfortunately, this reduced playing time meant less time with skilled forwards, which may have played a role in his 4.63% individual shooting percentage.

It will interesting to see how the Oilers manage Neal, who because of the lack of scoring talent will likely get plenty of opportunities playing with McDavid, Draisaitl or Nugent-Hopkins. Hopefully the Oilers are aware of Neal’s declining on-ice numbers and how poorly he’s fared against elite talent when he was getting top six minutes. It would be in the Oilers coaching staff’s best interests to have a deployment plan in place to mitigate any risks Neal’s acquisition brings to the team and get as much offence as they can from the player.

Data: Natural Stat Trick, Puck IQ