CALGARY – Amid the fallout from the Calgary Flames’ early playoff ejection is a frayed relationship with James Neal.
The veteran winger was a healthy scratch for the first time in his 11-year career when the Colorado Avalanche eliminated the Flames in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series last Friday.
Calgary signed the 31-year-old to a five-year contract worth US$28.75 million last year because he was a consistent 20-goal man and also brought playoff experience after two long runs with Nashville and Las Vegas.
But after seven shots on net, zero points and a minus-3 in the first four games of the Avalanche series, Neal was benched in favour of Austin Czarnik. Calgary lost 5-1.
“That was hard,” Neal said. “I’ve never had to go through that in my career.”
Flames head coach Bill Peters and Neal began working on reconciliation in their exit-meeting discussions this week.
“They were real,” Peters said. “We don’t want to go down that path again.”
While the Flames climbed to the top rung of the NHL’s Western Conference ladder, Neal didn’t blossom with his third new team in three years.
Thought to be a candidate to play on the top line with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, Neal’s tenure there didn’t last long as Elias Lindholm claimed that job.
Neal toiled on Calgary’s third line down the stretch, producing a career-low seven goals and 12 assists in 63 games.
Being sidelined 17 games with a lower-body injury in February and March contributed to diminished production.
“It was a tough year for sure,” Neal said. “It’s tough when you’re not producing like you should be. That being said, our team was winning.
“For me, I was just trying to get healthy and get ready and being an impact player in the playoffs. Obviously that didn’t happen. I need to get back to where I need to be.”
Given Calgary’s investment in Neal, both parties are motivated for him to be a happier and more productive player.
“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.
“I 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.”
Said Peters: “We’ve got to give him more ice time — and when I say give, on an earned basis.”
Neal reached the Stanley Cup final with both Nashville in 2017 and Las Vegas in 2018.
The six-foot-three, 212-pound forward recorded a combined 12 goals and eight assists in 42 post-season games.
His silver lining in Calgary’s suddenly long summer is extra time to top up his gas tank for 2019-20.
“The last three years, they’ve been good years, but that being said, you don’t have time to take care of your body and train in the summer,” Neal said.
“This is a chance for me to get back to where I know I can be and where I feel like I should be.”
With the alternative sour and potentially costly, general manager Brad Treliving says the Flames remain committed to making it work with Neal.
“James is very accountable,” the GM said. “James didn’t sign here to be a scratch in Game 5 of the first round.
“I think he’s going to pull up his boot strings and be better, but how do we help him too? There’s two parties involved, the player and the team. We both want him to be successful.”
© 2019 The Canadian Press