James Neal and the Rebirth of the Predators

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his summer, the Nashville Predators underwent a significant culture change. First, they fired longtime head coach Barry Trotz and brought in Peter Laviolette to replace him. Trotz had run a defense-first, dump-and-chase style of hockey for years (partly due to the lack of offensive talent in Nashville), which was proving ineffective in the modern NHL. Peter Laviolette runs a very up-tempo, offensive game that will look different than anything Nashville has ever seen. To fit this offensive system, the Predators made a bold move and traded for former Penguins winger James Neal at the NHL Draft.

Neal is the first true top-six forward to wear a Predators uniform since Paul Kariya and Peter Forsberg back in 2007. He was an incredible player in Pittsburgh, but he was overshadowed by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. In 2011-12, he averaged a point per game with the Penguins, notching 81 points in 80 games, including 40 goals. He put up similar numbers in 2013-14, putting up 61 points in 59 games. He is fast, can score with ease, and will benefit greatly from Peter Laviolette’s style.

Lone Star?

The one question mark surrounding James Neal is his production without Evgeni Malkin. He was on a line with Malkin while in Pittsburgh, who is arguably the best player in the NHL. Without Malkin at center, will Neal continue to find the same scoring success?

To possibly remedy this issue, the Predators took a leap of faith and signed Mike Ribeiro to a one-year contract. Ribeiro and Neal were teammates on the Dallas Stars, and had some good chemistry. If they can find that chemistry again, Neal could see his numbers increase even more.

Underlying Numbers

From an statistical perspective, we must examine his Corsi and GVT figures to determine his value to the Predators. Corsi is an advanced stat that measures how many shots a player attempts (shots on goal + shots missed + shots blocked). Last season, Neal’s Corsi/20 minutes was 21.306, the highest amongst Pittsburgh forwards.

By comparison, Sidney Crosby’s was 20.233 and Evgeni Malkin’s was 19.726. So, in basic terms, Neal produces a lot of offense when he is on the ice. The Predators’ offense last year was abysmal. No one on the team came close to matching Neal’s Corsi/20 minutes. The highest was Patric Hornqvist, who had a 19.502 Corsi/20.

According to HockeyBuzz.com, GVT (Goals versus Threshold) measures “a player’s value, in goals, above what a replacement player would have contributed.” It is split up into offensive and defensive GVT as well. Neal’s OGVT last season was 10.7. This is not very high, but it is still significant. Patrick Kane’s OGVT was 14.1, and Patrice Bergeron’s was 8.8. Basically, Neal is very valuable to any team that has him.

Time Will Tell

It’s a new era in Nashville. In the past, we’ve seen the mundane, dump-and-chase style of play that could lull the average fan to sleep. This year is going to be a whole lot different. Look for the up-tempo, goal-scoring style that has come to define the modern NHL. It should be a fun ride.

DATA COURTESY OF STATS.HOCKEYANALYSIS.COM AND HOCKEY PROSPECTUS.

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