James Neal mentioned it more than once after his exit meetings at the Saddledome …
“Being honest with yourself.”
That’s an important next step for the Calgary Flames’ oft-criticized right-winger, already labelled a free-agent bust with four winters remaining on a contract that comes with a chunky cap-hit of US$5.75 million per season.
The Real Deal was a real disappointment in his first campaign in Calgary.
He wasn’t thrilled about skating on the third line but didn’t do much to prove he should be promoted, either, mustering a measly seven goals and a dozen assists in 63 outings, by far the lowest offensive output of his career. (Before this 19-point turn, his previous worst was 36, and that was in a lockout-shortened schedule.)
Then, after being blanked in four playoff dates, he was a healthy scratch on Good Friday for the Flames’ most important game of the spring — a must-win that they didn’t.
For the 31-year-old, you can be sure there wasn’t a whole lot of sugar-coating in Monday’s end-of-season chit-chat with his bosses at the Saddledome.
Head coach Bill Peters, the man who omitted No. 18 from the lineup for Friday’s last gasp against the Colorado Avalanche , was asked if he would characterize his conversations with Neal as “positive.”
He selected a different word.
“They were real,” Peters replied. “We don’t want go down that path again. Individually, he doesn’t want to have that type of season again. We don’t want to see that type of season again, and we don’t want these types of results as a group.
“So things have to change. Something has to change. We have to give him more icetime — and when I say give, on an earned basis — because we don’t want to go through that again. That’s not productive for anybody. If we can fix that, that can go a long way.”
Neal is accustomed to going a long way in the playoffs.
In each of the past two seasons, he had advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final, only to watch his opponents hoist the historic hardware both times.
He’s now headed home much earlier than usual.
Despite all that promise and potential, despite racking up 50 wins during a splendid regular season, the Flames were eliminated in five games by the Avs — and Neal didn’t even suit up for the eventual clincher, the exact sort of pressure-cooker that he was signed for.
“That was hard … I’ve never been a healthy scratch before,” Neal said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow. But for me, I think going forward, you take it and be honest with yourself. Now, I have a chance to train in the summer and come back and I have something to prove. The last three years have been good years but, that being said, you don’t have time to take care of your body and train in the summer. So I’ll try to take the positive. I’m healthy, and this is a chance for me to get back to where I know I can be and where I feel like I should be.
“I have to get back to the play that I know I’m capable of.”
Although many fans are screaming for exile, there is little doubt Neal will be back in Calgary next fall.
It’s hard to imagine team owners would be willing to stroke that massive cheque for a contract buyout, or that Flames’ management would want the remnants of that move on their salary-cap for the next eight years. (According to CapFriendly, a buyout would chew up nearly $2 million in annual cap space until the end of the 2026-27 campaign.)
And you wouldn’t expect many trade offers on a guy who pocketed $821,000 (and change) per goal this past season.
“James and I had discussions during the year, we had a long discussion (Monday), and I would say James is very accountable,” said Flames general manager Brad Treliving. “Listen, when we signed James last year, I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to sit up here and say this is not exactly how we projected things to go. James didn’t sign here to be a scratch in Game 5 of the first round.
“There are those that can criticize. That’s the easy thing — to sit on the sidelines and throw rocks. Or you can sit here and say, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ When adversity hits you in life, do you sit there and suck your thumb or do you pull up your boot strings and say ‘OK, we have to be better’? I think he’s going to pull up his boot strings and be better.
“But how do we help him? There are two parties involved in it — there’s the player and the team — and we both want him to be successful. So how do we get to that end-goal? I think he’s real committed to obviously having a better year next year.”
It can’t get much worse.
Neal seems like an awkward fit for a squad that wants to play at such a quick clip — if he’s being honest with himself, trying to squeeze a bit more speed out of his skates will be high on his off-season to-do list — but it’s worth noting the Flames are not exactly stacked on the right wing.
Elias Lindholm currently tops the depth chart, but Peters has several times floated the idea of shifting him to centre.
Second-liner Michael Frolik was nearly traded on deadline day and could be bait again this summer, while Garnet Hathaway is an unrestricted free agent and Austin Czarnik’s offence has yet to translate from the minor-league level.
So perhaps there could be increased opportunity for Neal next winter, especially if he’s as hungry to redeem himself as he insisted Monday.
“I want to be a top-six guy who is counted on to score big goals and be an impact player,” Neal said. “I’ve been like that my whole career, and I feel like you just don’t lose that. I’ve scored 20-plus goals in every one of my years except for this year, so I know I can get back to being that type of player and help this team out. It just starts with training properly and kind of putting this season behind me, but at the same time, learning from it and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019