Because of his performances the last few seasons, it’s easy to forget that at one point, James Neal was among the most consistent offensive players in the league. For ten straight seasons, starting when he entered the league in 2008, Neal recorded at least 21 goals. He has 296 all-time, over a near 900-game NHL career. For a player with so much success at the highest level, a demotion to the minor leagues might mean it was time to call it quits. Not so for Neal, who has rediscovered his passion for the game while helping the Springfield Thunderbirds chase a Calder Cup.
In Elliotte Friedman’s latest column for Sportsnet, Neal explains that it’s not just this year that he is playing out, but hopes to keep going in 2022-23. The veteran winger will be 35 by the time next season begins and is scheduled to hit unrestricted free agency when his one-year, $750K contract expires this summer. Whether he’ll be able to land another NHL deal remains to be seen but he might not even need it, given how he has embraced the Thunderbirds, scoring 26 points in 28 regular season games and five more in five postseason matches so far.
It’s uncommon, but not entirely unprecedented for a successful NHL player to end up signing an AHL contract at the end of his career. Matt Moulson, for instance, has been playing on minor league contracts for three seasons, despite his history as a three-time 30-goal scorer in the NHL. While he didn’t have quite the same consistency as Neal, Moulson similarly embraced his transition to the AHL.
That’s not to say there won’t be a market for Neal this summer, especially if he’s willing to stay stashed in the minor leagues. A contender may want to keep him on an NHL contract in case they need a call-up, perhaps one that can play the net front on the powerplay or add some scoring punch in a limited role.
If not, and Neal doesn’t score another goal at the NHL level, it’s still been quite a career. His 296 goals put him just outside the top-200 all-time and his 33 postseason tallies have him quite a bit higher than that.
Springfield, meanwhile, will kick off the AHL’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Laval Rocket tomorrow night.