Many fantasy managers were surprised to see James Neal finish as a top-10 player at the end of the 2015-16 season.
According to fantasypros.com, Neal was taken, on average, around 107th in the draft. Missing 38 games between his last season in Pittsburgh and his first season in Nashville clearly damaged his projected value. It also made him fall out of the first few rounds on draft day.
The 2014-15 season was Neal’s first in Nashville. He scored 23 goals in 67 games for the Predators but stayed off of the fantasy radar for many managers. Why? Because he plays for a small market team and no longer plays with Evgeni Malkin.
But the city he plays in and the numbers of games he missed doesn’t change the fact that Neal is one of just a few players capable of registering more than 60 penalty minutes and scoring 30 goals in the NHL.
Jamie Benn, Brad Marchand, Wayne Simmonds, and Corey Perry all scored at least 30 goals and ha at least 60 penalty minutes last season. Like Neal, all of them are established elite wingers in fantasy hockey. Most of them are just better recognized or more trusted names on draft day.
What Neal proved beyond a shadow of a doubt in 2015-16 was that he is one the best skilled players who also has a mean streak. That mean streak results in plenty of time watching play from inside the penalty box, adding to his fantasy value.
The most surprising fantasy-relevant stat for Neal last season was his plus/minus rating. He finished as a +27 on a team that scored just one more even strength goal than it allowed. The big winger’s value enjoyed a big bump because he was so deep in the green in plus/minus. But it also shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Neal hasn’t finished in the red in plus/minus since his first two seasons with the Dallas Stars.
Neal’s fantasy value is dependent on his goal scoring. It is both his greatest strength and weakness. A career 11.6 shooting percentage has helped him score 215 goals and 195 assists in his nine-year career. Big name offensive players almost always pick up more assists than they do goals, but Neal has clearly proven he is first and foremost a finisher.
But neither an inflated plus/minus rating or a dependence on goal scoring should scare you away from Neal on draft day. He does a lot more than just score goals and watch them go in.
Neal has been a force for the Predators and their offense despite having a carousel of linemates throughout the season. As a top-six forward in Nashville he put 268 shots on net, picked up 65 penalty minutes, and scored 58 points. His 14 power play points last season left a lot to be desired, but it also shows an area that he can and likely will improve next season.
Something else that would help Neal’s offensive production and his fantasy value is more ice time with Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Johansen is an exceptional talent and Forsberg has the tools to be something really special. Neal finished the season playing on a line with Colin Wilson and Mike Fisher. Needless to say, those linemates didn’t do much to help Neal’s box score stats.
Expecting him to finish in fantasy’s top-10 at the end of next season is anything but a sure thing. But given the turnover that we see each year, that is hardly a strike against him.
Some might shy away from Neal because of the small market team he plays for and the amount of games he missed before last season. But the case for taking him as soon as possible after the first round next fall is rock solid. Don’t undervalue him on draft day.