The Golden Knights and Dallas Stars were tied at one goal apiece with under three minutes remaining in Vegas’ first-ever regular season contest. Veteran winger James Neal was just minutes removed from scoring the first goal in Knights history, and he was about to score another one.
Defenseman Jason Garrison hit center Cody Eakin in the neutral zone with a tape-to-tape stretch pass as Neal darted down the right flank. With defenders quickly closing in on Eakin, he distributed the puck past a diving Stars blueliner toward Neal. In order to corral Eakin’s pass, Neal dropped to his knees and, from one of the most awkward positions possible, roofed a once-in-a-lifetime goal to award Vegas its first win in franchise history.
Neal was the hero that night, and it was only a sign of things to come. He went on to play an integral role in the Knights’ mystifying inaugural season, scoring 25 goals in 71 games to help guide Vegas to an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final.
But now he’s gone.
Neal signed a five-year, $28.75 million contract with the Calgary Flames early Monday morning. By doing so, Vegas now has a massive hole to fill in its top six. But while replacing Neal’s production obviously won’t be an easy task, the Knights certainly aren’t beyond repair.
For starters, retaining Neal would have cost Vegas quite a pretty penny. The 30-year-old, who turns 31 in September, will be making $5.75 million every season for the next five years. And for an aging player (though he is still very good), it’s not hard to see why the Golden Knights were willing to let him walk. Long-term investments in players approaching the latter stages of their career always come with significant risk, and the Golden Knights managed to avoid that with Neal.
As Knights fans witnessed first-hand last season, Neal is one of the NHL’s premier goal scorers. In his decade-long career, he has never once scored less than 21 goals in a single season, and the Flames are paying him with the expectation that he’ll keep that streak going.
As a play-driver, however, Neal was nothing more than just average for the Golden Knights last season. His Corsi For percentage at 5v5 just barely surpassed the 50-percent mark (50.51) despite playing on a line with two of Vegas’ top point-getters in Erik Haula and David Perron. This comes as a bit of a surprise, too, as Neal has typically driven play at a respectable rate over the last half-decade.
Of course, Neal’s ability to find the back of the net is nothing to dismiss even considering his sudden regression as a play-driver. But even as a scorer Neal dealt with his fair share of inconsistencies last season, and this was apparent at both the very beginning and the very end of the Knights’ inaugural season.
Neal began the season on fire, scoring six goals in just four games. The only other player scoring at a higher rate was Alex Ovechkin, who managed a ridiculous eight goals in the Capitals’ first four games of the season. But from there, Neal found himself in scoring slumps a little more often than expected. His goalless drought at the end of the season was particularly rough for him as he potted just one goal in nearly two months.
Regardless of Neal’s hot-and-cold nature, though, it’s never ideal to lose an annual 20-plus goal scorer for nothing. Somehow, another forward will need to step up next season and fill Neal’s shoes as a dependable source of point production at right wing. And luckily for the Knights, they have one of the league’s better young wingers in Alex Tuch.
Tuch, 22, is coming off a 37-point campaign in which he scored 15 goals as a rookie. He also drove play at a pretty decent rate in his first season as a full-time NHLer (51.26 CF% at 5v5). So long as Tuch continues to develop, there’s no reason to assume the former first-round draft selection won’t become an even more significant piece in the Knights’ lineup.
And let’s also not forget about prospects Cody Glass and Nick Suzuki (assuming they aren’t traded this summer for a certain Ottawa Senators defenseman). Both Glass and Suzuki put together magnificent campaigns for their respective junior teams last season, and even though it’s a bit of a long shot, either of the two youngsters could force their way onto the opening night roster with a strong showing in training camp.
Don’t get it twisted. Neal’s departure could very well noticeably impact Vegas’ offensive game next season (in a bad way). But at the same time, Neal is far from irreplaceable. The Knights are lucky to have a number of promising young roster players and prospects capable of picking up the slack on the scoresheet. It’s just more a matter of when that happens as opposed to if it happens.
All statistics courtesy of Natural Stat Trick.