Lucic versus Neal: Who was the better Flame?

At the conclusion of the Flames’ both incredible and heartbreaking game against the Predators, a not-so-crucial-but-definitely-noteworthy milestone was reached. Milan Lucic had finally reached the same number of games played as James Neal in a Calgary Flames uniform: 63.

Now’s a good a time as any to break down how the two players have played as Flames. Using 5v5 and all situations data from Natural Stat Trick, we can readily compare the performances of Lucic and Neal using data visualisation. Charts are made with R using “ggplot2“. Colours were chosen with considerations for colour-blindness.

Since Lucic and Neal had different usage, their time on ice consequently varied (at 63 games played, Neal beats out Lucic by 101 extra minutes at all situations). To account for that, we’ll look at stats presented as rates per 60 minutes of ice time.

Scoring

When it comes to scoring, pretty much 99 out of 100 times you would expect Neal to rack up more goals than Lucic. While playing for the Flames, the confidence level of the previous statement drops way down. Neal scored seven goals to Lucic’s six, where Neal’s performance seemed to be the big anomaly in this case.

Comparing 5v5 play, it’s clear that Neal scored more often whereas Lucic has a better assist rate; however, the difference in goals scored made Neal the better overall performer at 5v5 when it comes to getting on the scoreboard.

Switch over to all situations and Lucic’s extra scoring on the power play helps his case. Funnily enough, both players posted identical 1.21 P/60 at all situations.

Individual shot contributions

When it comes to shooting, Neal nearly doubled Lucic for every stat at 5v5. The drastic difference here mainly comes back to Neal being a volume shooter whereas Lucic is not. At 5v5, Neal posted 108 shots on goal compared to Lucic’s 52. So doubling the shots rightfully leads to doubling other metrics such as Corsi For and Fenwick For.

However, one thing that really stands out is that despite Neal posting much higher shooting rates that Lucic, their individual expected goals per 60 is quite close. Neal managed 0.61 ixG/60 with Lucic not that far behind at 0.39 ixG/60.

That’s a large reason why Neal didn’t see much success in Calgary: he took many bad shots. You’d think that someone who shoots as much as he does would post a better ixG rate, but that clearly wasn’t the case.

Note: Shooting percentage isn’t a rate per 60 metric, but is included in the following two charts for added context.

When you compare the two players at all situations, it’s more or less the same story except for one stat: shooting percentage. The fact that Lucic scored five times compared to Neal scoring twice while on the power play gives Lucic the advantage here and serves as a big reminder as to how ineffective Neal’s campaign as a Flame was all-around.

Peripherals

Lastly, we can take a look at some peripheral stats to round it all out. It’s no surprise that Lucic massively out-hits Neal. It’s also not much a surprise that Lucic takes more penalties. However, it’s interesting to see that Lucic has both more giveaways and takeaways than Neal did.

Might that be a testament to how much more involved Lucic is when on the puck? Perhaps. The giveaways might suggest he isn’t as good at protecting the puck, or it could just mean that Neal’s more often able to get a shot off instead of causing a giveaway. The takeaways though, that does indicate that Lucic seems to pressure the opposition more than Neal did.

There isn’t much of a difference at all situations: the rates go up accordingly but the two players still compare similarly.

What’s the verdict?

Well, when looking at just a small selection of stats, there’s a few interesting standouts. Neal had a better year solely in terms of shot-based metrics, but points-wise, the two players were very close.

Judging who the better player was as a Flame might very well come down to individual preferences for evaluating players. Does Neal actually shooting more mean something? Or did his relatively low-quality shots really tarnish his performance?

What about Lucic actually doing well on the power play? Or his engagement with hitting and takeaways? Those are moves made when a player doesn’t have a puck, so how valuable is that?

All-in-all, the stats tell quite the story, but so too does watching the game. It’s a safe bet that many more folks have enjoyed watching Lucic in a Flames jersey far more than they did watching Neal. Besides, Lucic is slated to be a Flame until 2022-23, so might as well enjoy watching him more anyway.

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