After doing some reading in the forums about “magical” fourth year breakouts and potential breakout candidates for next season, I felt inspired to write this week’s Cage Match article on that subject. This week we will take a look at two potential breakout stars that are just destined to battle one another. We’re taking two Atlantic Division rivals, LW vs. LW, Power Forward vs. Power Forward, James vs. James, winner take all. I am excited, are you excited?


Let’s get ready to rumble!


In 2009-10 both James Neal and James van Riemsdyk (JVR) came bursting out of the gates and had poolies absolutely scrambling. Was Neal really breaking out as a sophomore? Was JVR really worth the hype and maybe the Calder?


Neal’s 22 points in his first 18 game and JVR’s 18 points in his first 17 games had people thinking they were both headed for 70-point seasons. Those early streaks proved to be nothing more than mere teases however. JVR saw his gravy train come to a screeching halt when Philadelphia fired head coach John Stevens and replaced him with Peter Laviolette, while Neal fizzled as the season wore on due to conditioning and general inconsistency, as many young players do.


This season was no different for Neal. He shot out of the gates like a cannon ball but was slowed when linemate Brad Richards got hurt and then stopped dead upon being traded to Pittsburgh. JVR, on the other hand, really had his ups and downs this season continuing to fail to earn the trust of Laviolette. He bounced around the lineup leading to many hot and cold streaks. This is not uncommon for young players but is absolute torture for us poolies.


As you will see in the table below Neal has been the better fantasy player since 2009-10, but he also has two years of development on JVR, including one NHL season and two pro seasons total.









Neal (2009-10)








Neal (2010-11)








JVR (2009-10)








JVR (2010-11)










Both players have been fairly durable over this time, playing in the mid to upper 70’s both years. Neal holds a relatively secure edge over JVR in every category but Plus/Minus and much of this comes from opportunity and the two extra years of development Neal has had.


JVR saw just 14:31 minutes of ice time per game this season, with only 1:19 on the powerplay. Neal conversely received an average of 17:29 minutes on ice per game, along with 2:34 on the powerplay.


The one category JVR must concede is PIM, because Neal has and should always remain the better option here, otherwise everything is open for picking.


While it is a small sample size, JVR may in fact be breaking out right now. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and it just so happens JVR has lodged seven pucks into his Snack Pack, tying him for the playoff lead in goal scoring. JVR seems to have found himself a prominent place on the Flyers powerplay. He is averaging 3:51 minutes of powerplay time and 19:20 overall, per game in the playoffs. He also leads the Flyers (and NHL) in SOG these playoffs, with 59 overall. That’s an average of 6.6 per game, which is not maintainable over an 82 game season but is well over his career pace of 2.3 SOG per game. His shooting percentages these playoffs also fall well in line with his career numbers so whether the ice time is creating more shooting chances or vice versa it is clear that he is on the right track.


JVR really reminds you of a pot on a stove. Right now we are seeing the steam slipping out the cracks, if we keep applying heat (ice time) he’ll most certainly boil over. Skating on what was the third best offensive team in the league this past season JVR’s odds of breaking out are very high, Laviolette just needs to keep him on the stove.


Neal is more of a wildcard. There is a lot of evidence pointing towards a breakout season. He is heading into his “magical fourth season” and should be riding shotgun to one of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin (or both, my God or both).


Quick tangent: skating on a line with those two has got to be like drumming for The Beatles. That’s not a shot at Ringo but rather an acknowledgement of how bloody good Crosby and Malkin are. Think about it, you get to play with these two savants and all you have to do is bang on a few things and you’re a star. Sign me up for that gig.


So Neal seems to be due for his own breakout season but I really wonder how much better his situation in Pittsburgh is than it was in Dallas. First of all, Neal has seen no real change in his ice time since landing in Pittsburgh and there is little reason to suspect he would. Furthermore, while Pittsburgh has been a slightly more offensive team than Dallas over the past couple of seasons but the Stars powerplay has been more efficient.


It is also worth noting that the Penguins never use both Crosby and Malkin on a line all the time so I contend that Neal isn’t any better off skating with Crosby or Malkin and some scrub than he is skating on the line he was on with Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson. You may have a differing opinion on that matter but also consider that both Crosby and Malkin will have question marks regarding their health into next season. I am supremely sceptical. Don’t get me wrong, Neal should improve but it will hardly be because of his situation.


I also believe that Neal’s strides to mastering his conditioning will be hindered by his move out of Dallas. Renowned conditioning coach Gary Roberts worked with Neal last summer and would have done so again this summer had Neal remained in Dallas because Roberts is now signed on with the Stars. That move could cause some hiccups in Neal’s off-season conditioning.


All in all I feel confident that both Neal and JVR can make breakout strides next season. If you are thinking strictly about one year leagues I’d call it a crapshoot (unless you count PIM, in which case take Neal) because I feel good about both breaking the 60 point barrier with an outside shot at 70. In keeper leagues you have to like JVR though. He has youth (two years younger than Neal) and pedigree (first round pick, second overall, versus second round pick for Neal). Both find themselves in highly positive situations and should be receiving quality ice time. JVR has done more with less though and now that the ice time is coming he is showing that he can be better than Neal, that he can be a real star. Let’s give this bout to JVR.


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Comments (9)add comment

Brian said:

Brian G
... Great article! I like JVR, but it sounds like some comments are writing Neal off, which I wouldn't at this point. Don't underestimate the "Crosby factor". Its not just playing with Crosby, but its also learning from Crosby. Sid is a great leader and teacher on the bench, and Neal could benefit from this significantly. Add to that a coach that is well liked and very patient with young players, I actually think Neal actually has more long-term potential. If he chooses to soak up this experience he could gain a lot. And if he gets himself in position to put his wicked wrist shot on the net, big things could happen for him. Only time will tell.
May 08, 2011
Votes: +0

Michal Sk said:

... I know that it is probably too premature to judge, but Neal appears to be legitimate Windex Wonder nominee...
May 06, 2011
Votes: +0

derek said:

Neal I would be worried about Neal only because I dont think he hit the net on but 1 of 7 shots a game haha.

Good article...
May 04, 2011
Votes: +0

Larry said:

... Neal's linemate upgrade isnt as big as most would think,and i like Pengwins comparison to Heatley- a little soft at times, what Ive seen from JVR this playoff- thats not a problem.

As for Philly-Versteeg is most likely a rental. Both Zherdev and Leino are UFA- and unlikely to both be back. PHilly is arguably in the worst cap situation- and have the weakest goaltending of any playoff team still playing. If they decide to address that in the off season by going after Vokoun/Bryzgalov- then most likely Carter or Hartnell get moved. If they go a cheaper route- their still saying adios to a few of their top 9 forwards. I would think JVR,Giroux,Richards and Briere are untouchable.
May 04, 2011
Votes: -1

T said:

... This is one of the most well-written articles I've ever read on this site in the 3 years I've been regularly coming here. Smart, fun, relevant and to the point. Well done.
May 04, 2011
Votes: +0

Ross The Boss Palmer said:

Ross The Boss Palmer
Wow Best article of the series yet, by far. This was a great read. Great to see you are finding your groove with this series, looking forward to future articles, and perhaps ones putting greats against each other (Brodeur vs. Roy for example), or prospects (WJC players?).
May 04, 2011
Votes: +0

SeaDawg said:

Philly's depth I agree with the others, nice work MD.

Although JvR has looked awesome these playoffs, I worry a little bit (like I do with all of Philly's forwards) about their extreme depth hurting his chances of reaching his ultimate potential. Richards, Carter, Leino, Giroux, Briere, JvR, Hartnell, Versteeg, Carcillo, Zherdev, etc. The list of potential top 6 forwards is quite long.

However, I do believe that if JvR truly has emerged, Carter could be traded this offseason for the goalie Philly really needs. To me, Briere is winding down his career and if Carter is traded, this team will belong to Giroux, JvR, and Richards going forward. They will form one of the best lines in all of hockey and will be terrific on the PP together.

So although Neal playing with Crosby is intriguing, I agree that JvR deserves the title here.
May 04, 2011
Votes: +0

hockeypoolfanatic said:

Amazing Article Superb article. Very well done. Soon as I saw Neal was the subject I was immediately very intrigue as I traded for him the moment he was traded to PIT. I can't wait to see how he performs once he starts playing with Crosby/Malkin.

Keep up the great work!
May 04, 2011
Votes: +0

Pengwin7 said:

Wow. Stellar. Sensational. A++++. 10/10 BOOM.

Atta boy Steve! This was AMAZING. Great stuff. Great pick for a battle! These are guys who are fringe players in many shallow/medium-depth leagues. Great summary on both guys. It is a bit bold to say that you don't see Neal's stats improving in PIT... but... I agree... B-Rich and Loui were fabulous linemates. It won't get much better than that and there is no lock that Neal gets PP1 time. PP2 in PIT isn't a glorious situation by any means.

Neal is intriguing because (I believe) he worked out with Gary Robers a few offseasons ago. As did Stamkos, and as did Skinner (I believe). I expected bigger things from Neal but his will to get to a puck on the ice looks almost Heatley-ish (not good). JVR gets to play with a solid C in any situation in PHI and could possibly get a very nice goal-mouth position on PP1 into the future, with even PP2 being flooded with talent in PHI.

I agree, JVR by a smidge.
May 04, 2011
Votes: +0
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