The case for the Golden Knights to not re-sign James Neal
To think about the future of Vegas, not bringing back their All-Star after this season makes sense.
One can be excused for reading the title of this article, one that so bluntly states its intentions, and fueled by the resulting emotional reaction race to click the link, scroll to the bottom without so much as a cursory glance at the contents, and filling out a large, well-thought-out rebuttal to the assumed points brought up therein.
That can be excused. It’s only natural. I’m here with a clear purpose, to tell you why your favorite player, a man synonymous with many of the happiest moments in the early Vegas Golden Knight history, should not have his services retained.
Because I love the Vegas Golden Knights. I’ve spent a large portion of my existence these last eight or so months consumed with the Golden Knights. And I am not here to ruin them or your memories of Mr. Real Deal.
I am here to explain to you why it is best for the organization to not re-sign James Neal.
Take the emotion out of it
Please divorce yourself from the emotion here. It’s integral to your enjoyment of the Golden Knights, but it does absolutely nothing for the building of a team.
There’s a part in the movie Moneyball where Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, explains that he doesn’t travel or really talk with the players because having a personal relationship with them makes it more difficult to do his job. It’s more difficult to trade, or waive, or allow players to leave when they’ve overstayed their welcome if you are also friends with them.
You love James Neal, the player. He of the many game-winning goals. That said, he is a player on a team and his spot on said team comes at a cost, be it financial or otherwise. Hockey, as bleak as it may sound, is a business. The Golden Knights are a team with a goal. The only thing that matters is whether Neal will help the team reach that goal.
With that in mind...
Neal is great ... but the Golden Knights don’t need him.
Neal is sixth on the team in points with 35. He is not their team leader in points or goals. Overall, his contributions have been valuable on the second line but you don’t want to pay a 31-year-old second-line winger $6.5 million. And you definitely don’t sign a 31-year-old second-line winger to a multi-year deal at that cap hit.
The Golden Knights are paying Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith $5 million and they contribute just as much production (more, actually) than Neal, who rumors have it would be looking to get about $1.5 million more than either.
Neal is replaceable. In fact, they have an internal option to replace him — Alex Tuch.
There are other ways to spend that $6.5 million
However, let’s pretend they don’t have Tuch. Pretend he isn’t nearly as productive as Neal right now and also nine years younger. The Golden Knights have other options beyond resigning Neal into his declining years.
Like this guy.
The Toronto Maple Leafs won’t likely be able to bring back all of their impending free agents. James van Riemsdyk is one of the players who will likely be lost in the shuffle as the team prepares to pay their three-headed monster.
Their loss could be Vegas’ gain.
Van Riemsdyk is two years younger than Neal. He has as many 60-point seasons to his credit, has seasons of 30, 29, and 27 goals under his belt and is well on his way to adding another 30-goal campaign to his resume. He’s played in 75 games or more in five of his previous seven non-lockout seasons (played all 48 in the lockout-shortened year and has played in 45 of the Leafs 46 games this season).
This season, he has virtually as many points (35 to 31) and goals (22 to 20) as Neal while playing three fewer minutes per night.
If the team wants to spend $6.5 million on a goal scoring winger, why not on a slightly younger, more durable version?
The cold, hard facts of James Neal
Neal is 30-years-old. Human history tells us he’s not getting any younger. Players tend to fall off a bit as they get older. Time spares no one.
This is not a problem when the Golden Knights are signing a 27-year-old forward who they are expecting to stay at his current level for the majority of the length of his contract. It is, however, when Neal is on the cusp of his declining years and is looking for a multi-year deal.
Neal will likely never again be as good as he is right now. His decline may be graceful, or it may be akin to stepping off a cliff. We don’t know. It’s impossible to know, and it is a disservice to the future of the team to make this kind of move without knowing.
What we do know is what Neal is at the moment: 20th in goals over the last three seasons and has had 10 straight 20-goal seasons, but 74th in points over that same three-year time span. There is still time to go up or down in both categories.
Neal is also someone with some durability concerns having played 75 games in just one of his last four full seasons. Things like durability don’t tend to trend upward with age.
That is something you must consider when you are thinking of paying a declining winger $6.5 million-plus against the cap. Especially when the final years run concurrently with the teams long-term window. The one they’ve planned and are building for.
Neal is a very good player, but it is difficult to say he elite. When elite players slow down they are still very good. It’s completely different when really good players slow down.
Let’s be a little realistic here...
I understand that the Golden Knights are 34-12-4 and they lead the Pacific Division and Western Conference in points. They have found themselves in this spot in part because of the contributions of Neal. They are well coached, relentless on the forecheck, and the kind of work-hard team that any fan could love.
The playoffs are a different beast.
The Golden Knights can, and in all likelihood, will make the playoffs. They could even find a way to win a round, depending on injuries and hot streaks. However, winning a round in the playoffs and contending for the Stanley Cup are two very different things.
To win the Cup, a team needs things that simply cannot be faked or replaced with anything else.
The first, a good goalie who gets hot at the exact right time. At least they have Marc-Andre Fleury.
The second is legitimate franchise talent. Franchise talent has been at the core of every championship team since after the Carolina Hurricanes won the thing following the first lockout.
To prove my point:
The Pittsburgh Penguins had Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for their wins. Chicago had Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane (and Duncan Keith if you consider him a franchise defenseman). Los Angeles had Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar (who is and has been for a long time, the most underrated superstar in the game and one of the best two-way players of the generation).
That right there is the eight of the last nine Cup winners with the lone exception being the Boston Bruins of 2011, who had one of the better defenseman not to win a Norris (Zdeno Chara), and a roster featuring prime-Milan Lucic, David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, a young Brad Marchand, Tyler Seguin and Blake Wheeler, and Tim Thomas literally standing on his head.
The last thing is strong defense, which is still a work-in-progress for the Golden Knights.
So, assuming that the Golden Knights don’t have the defense needed, or the franchise talent, what then is their realistic window? And how does a 30-year-old Neal fit into it?
The most aggressive projected timeline, going off the assumption that the Golden Knights struck elite talent gold in their first draft, puts the prospects path to dominance in the three year range at 20-21 years old. Which is a massive ask of kids that young. That’s roughly 2020-21.
Where does that put a then 33-year-old James Neal? Is keeping him for years where the team might make the playoffs but aren’t ready yet to truly compete worth having his cap hit on the books in the years where the Golden Knights could use it in Free Agency to acquire younger, better talent?
You can have your cake and eat it, too
Now, I am not advocating that the team trade James Neal. Vegas needs to keep him on the roster for the simplicity of how long this run can go. If they make a run similar to the Ottawa Senators last season, fantastic. If they don’t, if the season ends after a round or two then it was fun while it lasted.
The Golden Knights can give this roster a chance to win the Cup and set it up for the future simply by doing nothing. No trades, no extensions, just taking the roster they have and going for it.
The best thing the Golden Knights can do for themselves is make sure they have all the cap space possible available for when their actual window opens. Part of that is not giving a long-term extension to a guy you know is entering his decline.
Let someone else overpay Neal in free agency. Let them take on those seasons at $6.5 million or more. Let them take on the risk of having Neal turn into Milan Lucic, David Clarkson, Brad Richards, or Bobby Holik.
As Brad Pitt says in Moneyball, “When your enemy’s making mistakes, don’t interrupt them.”
While the cap hit might not seem like a lot, especially if the cap goes up as all indications are it will, but the Golden Knights don’t have any boat anchor contracts right now. That was the beauty of general manager George McPhee’s draft. The anchors he took were soon-to-be expiring contracts or deals that could be placed on LTIR. The Golden Knights didn’t have anything tying their hands long-term.
To sign a player you know will not stand the test of time, that you know will be a lesser version of himself in the mid-to-late years of the deal, when your window falls directly into the path of those late years makes no sense and is exactly the thing McPhee expertly avoided.