If hockey trades were like movies, and submitted themselves to universal review, praised or panned by critics, the trade that saw James Neal sent to the Pittsburgh Penguins was The Social Network. Well, for one side. Pittsburgh’s General Manager Ray Shero earned pretty positive praise for picking up a strong defensive defenseman in Niskanen for a powerplay quarterback.
But the key part of the trade was Neal. James Neal scored 24 and 27 goals in seasons leading up to the trade, with 21 at the time of the trade. An offensive specialist and young rising star who was coming off a very strong OHL career was only getting better.
In Pittsburgh, unfortunately, his tenure got off to an inauspicious start. He was point-less in six games with the Penguins before getting a goal and an assist in his seventh. After 27 games in Pittsburgh, including seven playoff games, Neal had just 2 goals and 6 assists.
However his shooting percentage was insanely low. Despite controlling the flow of play in Pittsburgh, his shooting percentage was a minutely low 1.9%. To put that in perspective, picture a goaltender with a save percentage of .981—that’s the sort of hot goaltender that Neal found himself personally facing every night. It didn’t help that his teammates only shot 5.3% when he was on the ice at even strength.
When I say “controlling the flow of play”, it means that, as a Pittsburgh Penguin last season, 55.6% of the shots on goal were on the other team’s net. Corsi, a statistic that is used as a reliable proxy for puck possession when a player was on the ice, was more favourable to Neal last season in Pittsburgh, with 61.2% of all goals, saved shots, missed shots and blocked shots being fired at the other team’s net. Considering the best teams in the league get about 54-55% of the events, this is a very impressive number for Neal. By some measure, James Neal and his linemates are the best team in hockey.
If you believe that percentages regress (which they do) you might have been able to predict a hot season for James Neal (which he is having). Neal has kicked off his year with 9 goals and 14 points: the bad luck he had last year has reversed and Neal’s shooting percentage has climbed to 15.5%.
It’s not so much that his percentages have improved, leading to a mirage of sorts when it comes time to analyze his play. His shot and Corsi differential is still expressly high, at 51.8% and 54.9% respectively, which puts him among some of the better players in the league if he can maintain these numbers at even strength. But his shooting percentage, which has returned to his career average, has become a large factor into why Neal appears every bit like the star we assumed he had ceased being when he joined the Penguins.
There was no way that that 1.9% was going to keep up. Over 82 games, only one forward since the lockout, Craig Adams in 2010, has had a shooting percentage of below two. Adams had no goals on 84 shots in 910 minutes of play that season for the Penguins. Simply put, while defensive defensemen may register shot percentages that low from only taking long, unscreened shots, sometimes managing to lift the puck off the ice, forwards are tuned to take shots in closer, or have pucks bounce right to their sticks with a wide-open goal-mouth. Sometimes a player gets those bounces, and sometimes a player doesn’t.
This season, Neal is getting the bounces that every forward seems to get again, and he’s looking like a true superstar, and that’s become very important to the Penguins given the injury to Sidney Crosby and the general flakiness of Evgeni Malkin, who’s only played seven games thus far. The 24-year old Neal is carrying the Penguins right now on offense and they are seventh in the league despite missing 23 man-games to their three biggest stars (the third being Jordan Staal).
Goligoski, to his credit, has been no slouch in Dallas, and that was evident Friday night, when he put up a goal and an assist in a wild 7-6 overtime win for the Stars over the Colorado Avalanche in a game where goaltending was strictly optional. Goligoski is the top defenseman on the Stars this season when it comes to pure Corsi rating and Dallas is a pleasant 9-3 coming off a horrible second half of last season. But what Neal has provided to the Penguins is invaluable, and his percentages have finally climbed to a point where he is every bit the valuable player that he was expected to be when he came over in last season’s trade.