The St. Louis Blues 2021-22 season represented a major transition for the franchise. No longer a stout defensive team built from the blueline out, they finished second in the NHL in goals scored, with nine forwards recording 20-plus goals. Though the season came to an end in a six-game defeat by the Colorado Avalanche in the second round, there are plenty of highs and lows to reflect on. In this series, we’ll evaluate each player who played 10 or more games with the team (as well as the head coach and general manager), grading their individual performance and looking at their future with the team.
The St. Louis Blues had a transformative season, transitioning from a team that is built from the blueline out to a team that is loaded with scoring forwards. In that environment, it is all the more impressive to remember that NHL veteran James Neal earned his way onto the roster with his play in the preseason.
Neal, a veteran of 13 NHL seasons, was a free agent late in the summer and signed a professional tryout (PTO) with St. Louis. But what became of his season after that? We’ll take a deep dive look at his results and grade his overall performance.
What Went Right: Veteran Presence
The Blues obviously thought Neal had something to offer after the Edmonton Oilers bought him out, so they signed him to a PTO to challenge some rookies for playing time and keep them working hard. But after he scored a hat trick during his first preseason game, it seemed obvious that he might become more. The Blues signed him to a one-year deal and he made the opening night roster. He made an impact, scoring in his third game. But he didn’t have NHL staying power.
Neal played the bulk of his games in October and November, then played a two-game stretch in January, but he ended up spending most of his season in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Springfield Thunderbirds. There, he scored 14 goals and had 26 points in 28 regular-season games, and he currently has three goals and nine assists in 12 games in the postseason. He has helped the Thunderbirds reach the Calder Cup Finals, which are set to begin Sunday afternoon. Neal’s veteran presence has been felt at both the NHL and AHL levels this season, and at 34, he seems to have some gas left in the tank if he decides to continue playing, even if it’s at the AHL level.
What Went Wrong: Miles on the Tires
With that said, the cruel reality of the NHL is that age is an enemy to every player. Neal has had a terrific career that included an OHL Championship, a World Junior Championship (WJC) gold medal, over 800 games, and all-star appearances. But this season, he clearly didn’t have enough to be a full-term contributor to a contending team. Even so, he made some memories, including the overtime game-winner he scored to keep the Thunderbirds alive in a conference championship series they would ultimately win.
Neal could still be a big contributor for the Thunderbirds as they chase a Calder Cup Championship. He certainly has been so far. But he wasn’t able to stick on the Blues’ roster, and it’s hard to see him doing so on any top roster at this juncture in his career.
- Earned a one-year contract after a strong preseason (on a PTO)
- Recorded hat tricks on Sep. 25 (preseason NHL) and March 4 (AHL)
- Averaged 11:58 TOI during the 2021-22 season at the NHL level
Final Grade: C-
To grade Neal any lower than this would have required unreasonable expectations from the start. He was never going to be a game-changer for the Blues. He was fighting an uphill battle to even make the roster. He did, and he should be celebrated. But once players like Alexei Toropchenko, Nathan Walker, and even Logan Brown began to earn regular NHL playing time, he ran out of time. To his credit, he accepted an AHL role with head held high and has been a key contributor to the Thunderbirds’ playoffs run. So he has been a credit to the Blues’ organization, even if not a difference-maker in the NHL.
What’s Next for Neal?
It’s not impossible that the Blues bring Neal back if he liked the role he was in this season. But it seems unlikely. Neal will be 35 before the next season begins, and he may well choose to retire. He’s had a terrific career, with 559 points in 869 games. But if he wishes to continue his career, his best bet will be finding a role with a young team that wants some veterans to help their prospects mature. He could provide a lot of value to a franchise on the rise if he chooses. It just depends on what he wants at this juncture.
Stephen Ground is a veteran of over three years at THW, focusing on the St. Louis Blues, NHL goaltending, and the annual World Junior Championship. He is the co-host of the Two Guys One Cup Podcast, a hockey podcast focused on the Blues.