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James Neal, Where Art Thou?

After the Olympic break, the Dallas Stars introduced the "Arby's Real Deal" ticket promotion. It's a pretty good deal, actually. $18 upper level seats to any March and April game, plus a free James Neal t-shirt and an Arby's coupon (or something).

There's just one problem. As much as we all love The Real Deal (and delicious Arby's sandwiches), the purchase of said ticket promotion, so far, has come with hardly any accompanying James Neal moments. Which is to say, he can't buy a goal to save his life lately. He has only one tally in his last 17 games heading into Wednesday's game against San Jose.

Neal has had a nice season, statistically. His production has improved over last season, avoiding the oft feared "sophomore" slump, and he'll soon be a restricted free agent that's due for a very handsome raise. Still, with all of this time on our hands, we wonder a little if the "Real" Deal is the guy from October, the guy from March, or somewhere in between?

Follow the jump for a look at the numbers and possible explanations...

He's only 22 years old...

Neal burst onto the scene last season completely unlooked for. Whereas someone like Jamie Benn came with hype and expectations, James Neal was a little under the radar. We were talking about BJ Crombeen before 2008-2009 season (or Sean Avery?) Not Neal. He surprisingly grabbed hold of a roster spot and stuck with the team for 77 games because his production made it impossible for him to be sent down.

I recount this because I think it's easy to lose sight of how far he's come in such a short time, and what "reasonable expectations" should be at this point of most 22 year olds' careers. He's had a 24 goal season and a 25 goal season he's still working on, so he's already ahead here.

The Numbers...

That all being said, what is up with him lately? I split his 2009-2010 season so far into quarters. Note the production....

Games Goals Assists Points +/- SOG
#1 - #18 11 11 22 +6 52
#19 - #37 7 5 12 -4 49
#38 - #55 6 5 11 -5 51
#56 - #72 1 5 6 -5 35


First, let's talk about the first chunk of games. 11 goals and 11 assists is outrageous production. This isn't a "where's the James Neal from October???" piece. Production like that would get him Brad Richards money rather than the Loui Eriksson money he might get come June or July, neither of which I'm certain the Stars can afford.

The middle chunk of games is likely where Neals' game is. Split his 2008-2009 rookie season into quarters and you'll see much the same:

Games Goals Assists Points +/- SOG
#1 - #18 6 2 8 -5 34
#19 - #37 7 3 10 -6 54
#38 - #58 5 6 11 1 37
#59 - #77 6 2 8 -1 46


He's brought the assist totals up a little, but the goals are a nice steady stream that amount to about a 25 goal pace. His early production this year saved that pace, but lack of goals aren't the only troublesome thing. In October on the podcasts we were extolling the virtues of James Neal on a weekly basis. He was the bull in the china shop. He was the forechecker from hell. He forcibly grabbed our attention during the game and refused to relinquish it. He has done almost none of these things in March.

Reunited and it feels so...

The most obvious solution is often the best one, and we've already had these conversations more than once about Loui Eriksson, last season and the season before: It's because he's not with Brad Richards any more.

Starting soon after the break around the time of the Penguins game (in practice) and the Caps game (in game action) Crawford replaced Neal with Ott on the Richards line, and placed him with Jamie Benn and Jere Lehtinen on a line that has done little offensively. Witness Neals' shots on goal decline in the table above.

Razor mentioned on the broadcast last night that players in a slump will often say "at least I'm getting chances," but that Neal feels the opportunities aren't even there. Playing with a 20 year old whose trying to figure out how to be a center in the NHL, and an aging Jere Lehtinen, should make it little surprise that the quality scoring chances have been fewer and further between.

Luckily for him, Neal has been reunited with the Richards line in each of the last two games, so it appears as though the mostly failed experiment of 18-14-26 is over. For now.

What do you think?

I don't need to him to score Brad Richards like numbers as he did in October, but I could do with a little more of the "bull in a china shop" James Neal, or someone like him. Over the course of the Steve Ott discussions we spoke of how difficult it is to treat your body like that for an extended period of time. I get that, so please don't think me insensitive; but he gave us a taste of what a dominating force he can be outside of goal-scoring, and we rather liked it.

Six games remain in this now defunct season (and let's not discount the theory that the teams' struggles as whole could have something to do with it as well), and Neal has the chance to re-gain some of his confidence heading into the off-season. Plus, I want to hear that "The Real Deal" drop they play at the AAC when he scores. (And I think what's important here is really what I want, after all...)

So what say you? Is James Neal someone who, after Brad Richards contract is up and out of here, will look overpaid because he misses his set-up man? Will he be fine no matter the line? Is the long season just wearing him down? And are you more of a regular roast beef kind of person, or the Arby's beef and cheddar?