Neal was the highest ranked player left on our Top 50 UFA List after day one of free agency, and is the picture of offensive consistency in the salary cap era. Scoring at least 21 goals in each of his ten seasons, Neal was once again a positive possession player and an on-ice leader for the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017-18. Though he’s almost never been his team’s leading scorer, he quietly goes about his business at both even-strength and on the powerplay providing excellent secondary scoring and reliable two-way play. That’s huge for the Flames, who have rebuilt their roster over the last few weeks with the additions like Neal, Derek Ryan, Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm.
The Flames enter 2018-19 with a new head coach behind the bench in Bill Peters, and several new faces up front. Where Neal fits into the group isn’t clear, but he’ll be another option for the middle-six, or potentially even spend time on the top line if Lindholm doesn’t fit as well as expected with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. It will be interesting to see what this means for Troy Brouwer, who still has two years at $4.5MM on his contract but is coming off back-to-back seasons of 25 or fewer points.
Even with Neal’s remarkable consistency, this deal does bring some substantial risk. The 30-year old winger has seen his assist totals decline in recent years as he tends to create less room for himself and teammates, and he isn’t the same dynamic powerplay scorer that he was earlier in his career. There’s no guarantee that as he enters the latter part of the contract he’ll still be an effective second-line option, but at a near $6MM price tag will still be paid like one.
The Flames are obviously disappointed with their lack of success in 2017-18, and have done some hard work this summer to put themselves in a better position come the fall. After waiting until the middle rounds to even make a selection at the draft, they’re clearly in a win-now mode and can’t deviate from that plan.