Free Agent Profile: James Neal

 

James Neal, Pre-Game Warm-up for the Vegas Golden Knights

Photo by Ethan Miller of Getty Images

It’s only June 17th and already, the wheels of NHL free agency have begun to turn. As we all know, the Devils’ biggest needs are a top-four defenseman, and more depth among their 4th-9th forwards. James Neal of the Vegas Golden Knights is one of the top forwards available this summer, and and could be of particular interest to New Jersey.

There is no doubt that head coach John Hynes has changed the identity of this team that’s bought into his concept of being a fast unit that is hard on the forecheck and smart defensively. The players have also bought into each other, believing they can win and be a dominant force. So how does James Neal help with the culture of this Devils team? The Devils are currently at can best be described as a crossroads. They have only two choices— get better and stronger to compete for the cup or falter and regress to make this year look more like a fluke. James Neal could be an ideal candidate to continue moving that winning culture forward. Neal has never won a Stanley Cup, but has played in each of the last two Stanley Cup Finals. The Golden Knights also play a very fast and aggressive forechecking style of a system, not to mention Neal has contributed well in the playoffs to his respective teams’ runs.

James Neal Career Playoff Stats
Year Games Goals Assists Points
2010-2011 7 1 1 2
2011-2012 5 2 4 6
2012-2013 13 6 4 10
2013-2014 13 2 2 4
2014-2015 6 4 1 5
2015-2016 14 4 4 8
2016-2017 22 6 3 9
2017-2018 20 6 5 11

It’s also worth mentioning that adding a player of his caliber would show current Devils players like Taylor Hall that the organization is ready to seriously compete. Neal has always been a productive regular season scorer, having registered at least 21 goals in each of his 10 NHL seasons. Despite his lengthy tenure in the league, Neal will only be 31 when next season starts, putting him at an appropriate age to factor in New Jersey’s youth movement, while having enough experience to serve as a veteran presence for the younger players. At this point, it comes down to looking at the roster and seeing if there is a fit.

When adding forward depth, one route is to distinguish your top and bottom-six forwards. With Neal being versatile and able to play either wing, it would be possible to see him on the first or second line, ideally on the right side. For the Devils, the first line this year mostly comprised of Nico Hischier, Taylor Hall on the left side, and a revolving door between Jesper Bratt and Kyle Palmeiri on the right. If the Devils signed Neal, he could round out New Jersey’s top-six right wing depth, giving Coach Hynes the option of playing him or Palmieri with Hall and Hischier.

The last part to really address is what kind of contract he would be looking to sign. One player worth comparing Neal to in this situation is Kyle Palmieri, a perrenial 20+ goal scorer since coming to New Jersey, whose current contract pays him $4,650,000 per year. This is because it was a contract given by Ray Shero so similar thought process most likely, Palmieri had just come off his best year as a pro with 30 goals and 57 points on a team that didn’t make the playoffs when he received his contract prior to the 2016-2017 season, and Palmieri’s output in terms of points and contributions’ are on a similar level to Neal’s throughout his career since being acquired in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks who used him more as depth forward rather than a top two line player.

Kyle Palmeiri and James Neal Regular Season Stats
Kyle Palmeiri James Neal
Year Games Played Goals Assists Points Year Games Played Goals Assists Points
2015-2016 82 30 27 57 2015-2016 82 31 27 58
2016-2017 80 26 27 53 2016-2017 70 23 18 41
2017-2018 62 24 20 44 2017-2018 71 25 19 44

The only other factor worth taking into consideration is what other players are available that are similar to the caliber of James Neal. Other wingers currently available include Rick Nash, James Van Riemsdyk, David Perron, Thomas Vanek, Michael Grabner, and Patrick Maroon. Out of these players, James Neal had lfewer points than only his teammate David Perron and Thomas Vanek of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Given all these factors and based off pure speculation, Neal’s price tag will probably be between $4-5 million dollars a year with a deal spanning four years, containing a limited no trade clause.

The Devils have about just under $20 million dollars in cap space, so signing Neal to a deal like that is not impossible and would still leave enough to resign or pursue other players on the market . At the end of the day, it comes down to Ray Shero and John Hynes believing whether or not Neal could contribute to this team in terms of more than just the stat sheet but with his experience also and then the dominoes could fall from there.

All statistical and historical salary information in this article were found and used from CapFriendly and I highly encourage readers to visit the site to get a good understanding on how the free agent landscape is looking this year.

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