One postseason ago, the Calgary Flames were quickly eliminated from the first round of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the hands of Nathan MacKinnon and the rest of the Colorado Avalanche. This time around, the Flames easily got through the Winnipeg Jets in four games to officially make it into the real playoffs.
One exploration that’s always fun is comparing two players involved in an highly debated, borderline controversial trade in Milan Lucic and James Neal. We all know far too well what each fan base thinks of either player, and the topic of who won the trade will continue to spark discussion for years to come.
Let’s keep it simple and look at the small sample of the playoffs. Semantics of calling it the qualifiers or the playoffs aside, the fact of the matter is simple: Lucic played better Flames playoff hockey than Neal ever did.
You have to give credit where it’s due, Milan Lucic has grown into a Flames locker room favourite, a fan favourite, and after all things are considered, might be a more impactful player for the Flames than Neal overall.
When it came to the playoffs, Lucic’s also the only Flame to earn a point in each of their four games. Having Lucic show up and leaving it all on the ice was a welcome surprise, and his impact was felt throughout the series.
Watching the 2020 Playoffs edition of the Flames and not-so-fondly recalling last year, the comparison between Neal and Lucic leave lots of people thinking that the Flames might have won the trade, or at the very least got rid of an unenthused Neal for a total team player on and off the ice in Lucic.
Just how differently did Neal and Lucic actually perform during Flames playoff games? Both players have played four playoff games as a Flame (so far) which should make for decent comparisons. Using data from Natural Stat Trick, let’s see how the numbers paint the picture.
Having nearly identical times-on-ice, the stats speak for themselves. Lucic was more effective than Neal at 5v5, plain and simple. That stat that stands out the most is the differences in individual expected goals (ixG) and individual corsi for (iCF). Despite having just one more shot attempt than Neal, Lucic had over three times the expected goals. That suggests that the shots he took were likely more dangerous, whereas Neal’s were easy saves with little danger at all.
Neal’s most common linemates last year during the playoffs were Sam Bennett and Mark Jankowski, whereas Lucic has skated alongside Bennett and Dillon Dube. Lucic already gets the benefit of Bennett being more effective this year compared to last, but the significantly more major upgrade would be playing with Dube over Jankowski.
Overall, Lucic has individually been more impressive than Neal, and the on-ice play of his linemates reflect the same.
Throw in all situations and Lucic looks even better. Neal was held off of the scoreboard entirely while Lucic found his way there every single game. Lucic was much better at generating offence across the board by both the eye test and also from what the stats say.
Looking at the ratio between iCF and ixG, it remains clear that Lucic was more effective even when things weren’t 5v5. With three additional shot attempts, Lucic’s expected goals nearly doubled. Neal’s two extra attempts also nearly doubled his expected too, albeit at a much lower total amount.
That’s a clear an indication as any that Neal was much less effective with the puck than Lucic has been. Even away from the puck, Lucic made his presence felt, which culminated with his tilt against Nathan Beaulieu to start Game 4 against the Jets.
Similar to all situations, their times-on-ice were virtually the same, yet Lucic was far more engaged and was responsible for much more offence than Neal. Whether that’s a testament to Lucic’s hockey ability or Neal’s complete apathy remains to ever be known, but for what the Flames got out of the trade, they probably couldn’t be happier.
Both Neal and Lucic have four playoff games as a Flame under the belt, but one was superior to the other. From these stats, it’s pretty clear that Lucic skated circles around Neal when it came to stepping up for the Flames, while Neal seemed far too content just skating in circles.
Photo courtesy: Jason Franson/CP