Replacing James Neal Now Becomes Main Priority for The Predators This Summer
It’s been nearly a week since the Nashville Predators lost James Neal to the expansion draft. On June 21st, the same day that David Poile was declared NHL’s GM of the Year—an award he most definitely deserved—the Preds front office allowed the Vegas Golden Knights to steal a top six forward off their team.
I say “allowed” because that’s exactly what happened. Regardless of how much hardball George McPhee was playing when discussing the trading of assets to “protect” Neal (rumor is that he was asking for a LOT), Vegas can’t select Neal off the Predators if he is protected.
That decision was made for Vegas when Poile protected Calle Jarnkrok instead of Neal. It was a no doubter for McPhee to take Neal, one of the 25 best shooters in the league over the last nine years, for a measly $5 million salary. Neal could easily score 20-25 goals this year and then be traded in February to a contender for future prospects.
But what’s done is done. James Neal is in Vegas and the Predators are missing a shooter. So what does this do to the Predators’ Stanley Cup aspirations for next year?
When you look at what it takes to win a Cup, it’s pretty clear that you need a good goaltender and a good defense. The Predators made their run in 2016-17 on the strength of a red-hot goalie and the best defense in the league. We have seen that defense can at least get you to the championship.
But it also takes scoring and lots of it.
Take a look at the last ten Stanley Cup winners and how effectively they’ve shot the puck, both in the regular season and in the playoffs.
On average, recent Cup-winning teams shoot well above the league average, which usually hovers around 8.0-9.0%. There are some awfully good shooters on those teams. Guys like Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, Patrick Kane, and Anze Kopitar.
To shoot above 9.0% in the regular season and in the playoffs you need guys who can... well... shoot the puck well. The league average was around 9.0% in the 2016-17 regular season. Teams that shot above 9.0% did so by having—wait for it—guys on their team who shoot the puck well.
Notice also that most teams improved their shooting in the playoffs, even teams with below average shooting in the regular season (Los Angeles Kings). They did so by having—wait for it again!—guys on their team who shot the puck well.
It is important to note that the 2016-17 Predators had shooting numbers that mirror those ten teams quite closely. In the regular season they shot 9.3%, dipping slightly to 9.2% in the playoffs.
They did so by having—wait for it thrice!!—guys like James Neal who can shoot the freaking puck.
So why didn’t they bring the Cup home? Well, everyone knows that answer. Colton Sissons was robbed They lost their top line center and had to replace much of their lineup with AHL guys.
Before losing Ryan Johansen in the Western Conference Final, the Preds had the horses they needed to win a Cup.
For most of the playoffs, the Predators’ scoring came mostly from two sources: JOFA and the defense. The top line of Ryan Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson, and Filip Forsberg combined for 42 of the Predators’ 162 points in the playoffs, a 26% share of the offense. The blueline combined for 56 points, a 35% share.
James Neal contributed six goals in the playoffs, including two game winning goals. He was one of only five players to score at least five goals in the playoffs, joining Forsberg, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Colton Sissons (who shot an unsustainable 21.4%).
(Oh, by the way. James Neal suffered a broken hand in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final. Didn’t miss a game. Scored three more goals.)
While it is true that Neal wasn’t the main source of offense for the Predators in the playoffs, he was hardly invisible. He was an important 2nd or 3rd option for goal-scoring on any given night, a very typical role for a top six forward to be in.
Neal was the Preds’ sixth man on the top two lines, that guy on the outside, lurking with his wrist shot, keeping defenses honest and goaltenders worried.
As we’ve seen over the years, it is important to have multiple effective shooters on a team in order to make an impact. The Penguins didn’t win multiple Cups in the last decade because one guy shot the lights out. They won multiple Cups with scoring balance and a dangerous top six. Same goes for the Hawks and Kings.
The Predators right now have a dangerous top five.
Here is a list of players currently on the Predators with the same pedigree of Neal that can immediately step into a top six role with the same level of danger in their shot from the outside:
This is not to say that Kevin Fiala or Pontus Aberg or some other player not yet on the Predators can’t become that player... but right now that roster spot sits empty.
If the Predators want to make another Cup run, but this time with more Cup, that spot needs to be filled.