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After just over a month on the shelf, James Neal looks to make his return to the Flames’ lineup this coming Thursday.
It would be beating a drum to say that Neal hasn’t played well this season, but this time of year is where Neal thrives. Heading into the playoffs, the Flames need Neal to be back at 100% and to do so means he has to get into the lineup as soon as possible. To do that, someone needs to sit.
We had posed this question to fans before in a past Sunday Census post, with Garnet Hathaway being the most popular choice among fans. Although it may be hard to admit, it seems like the most logical choice to move to the press box would be Austin Czarnik. Based on history alone, and how the lines are currently deployed, Czarnik seems like the player that the coaching staff will most likely opt to sit in favour of Neal. There is a strong argument to be made that that is very unwise to do so. In fact, there is an even better argument to be made that there is simply no place for Neal at all on this current roster. Let me explain:
The first line
For Neal fans, this is exactly where they want him to be playing. I too auctioned for this to happen earlier in the season, even suggesting last week that he would make so much sense on the first power play unit. But inserting Neal on to the top line causes additional problems up and down the lineup.
Sure, offensively his numbers would likely improve, but logically speaking he would take the place of Elias Lindholm, finally giving Neal the opportunity to play with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau. That would cause #28 to move to either the second or third line, with the former being the more likely option. In doing so, you now have to move Michael Frolik down to the third or fourth line to accommodate. Doing that subsequent move would alter the bottom six (more on their performance later) on either one or both of those lines.
So now to get one player going on to the top line, you have now caused at least three of your lines to be changed, maybe even all of them, at a time when they don’t necessarily need to be altered. It’s almost subtraction by addition.
The second line
Do the Flames dare mess with the 3M line heading into the playoffs? It’s almost a blessing and a curse that the 3M line is as solid as it is. As it currently stands, the 3M line holds a CF% of 58.4%, a SCF% of 56.2%, and an HDCF% of 52.6%. On both sides of the ice, this line gets it done. It also makes it hard when trying to move Michael Frolik around in the lineup. Without Mikael Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk, the Czech forward doesn’t seem to play at the same level. The same could be said for the other two players as well. It’s almost 3M or bust, and frankly it’s absurd to even think of splitting them up again.
When Neal made a brief appearance on that second line earlier in the season, the results were lackluster. Although they produced a CF% of 53.6%, offensively they struggled. In addition to that, Neal once again caused the bottom six to be shuffled around to make room for him. It didn’t work then, and it probably won’t work now.
The third line
There is no doubt that someone with the career and reputation of Neal would be a worthy addition to a playoff bound club, the only issue is that there simply isn’t any logical spot for him to slot into.
Let’s take the third line for example, the most likely place for him to play. Playing on the right side of Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett would form a decent third line right? In the 146:51 of 5v5 ice time that this line was together, it accounted for a 51.0% CF%, 56.2% SCF%, and a 59.7% HDCF%. Those numbers aren’t bad at all, in fact they are above average when comparing them league wide. That being said, replace Neal with Czarnik and those numbers inflate to a 62.9% CF%, 61.8% SCF%, and 57.7% HDCF%. With Czarnik as the RW, the third line is able to generate more offensive zone pressure and chances. Although they may not be as quality as a line with Neal is, the overall possession game in increased.
With Czarnik, the third line started 58.7% of their shifts in the offensive zone, while the Neal counterpart started a smaller percentage at 56.8%. Not a significant different, but a statistic to make note of.
So although the third line seems like the best fit, the stats back up the notion that a Czarnik unit makes more sense at the moment.
The fourth line
Last but not least, would it make any sense for Neal to play on the fourth line? The current unit does an excellent job at what a fourth line should be: providing energy, tight checking, and the occasional offensive chance. The current deployment of Andrew Mangiapane, Derek Ryan, and Garnet Hathaway have done that in spades.
At 5v5, the line registers a CF% of 54.8%, a SCF% of 63.3%, and an HDCF% of 68.6%. Did we mention that this was the fourth line? Their numbers are currently on par, if not better than the third line. Messing with that type of chemistry could be a fatal mistake.
In addition to that, matching up Neal with any sole player from that line gives below average number. With Mangiapane, Ryan, or Hathaway, Neal’s pairing provides statistical numbers that are lower than every single one the current fourth line is producing at. It just doesn’t work on many angles.
Is there a spot?
Although it makes complete sense to find room for Neal as soon as possible, the options appear limited. He could be an upgrade, but it would come at an initial cost to one of the four lines, if not more, that are all currently rolling. It’s not an enviable position to be in, but someone will have to make the call as to where Neal fits in a roster that doesn’t currently have room for him.