NHL Early Season Surprises: James Neal, Anthony Mantha

NHL early season surprises

Barely into the new season, James Neal (Edmonton Oilers) and Anthony Mantha (Detroit Red Wings) are among the biggest NHL early season surprises.

The Oilers’ winger notched six goals in his first two games. Meanwhile, Mantha scored five times in his first two. Surprisingly, both players have had four-goal games and currently near the top of the NHL standings in goals. 

NHL Early Season Surprises: James Neal, Anthony Mantha

An Established Goal Scorer 

Since entering the NHL back in 2008-09 with the Dallas Stars, James Neal has gradually made a name for himself for being a consistent goal scorer. 

From 2008 to 2017, Neal scored over 21 goals every single season. During those 10 seasons, he reached the 25-goal plateau five times. That includes a career-high of 40 goals with the Pittsburgh Penguins back in 2011-12.

A Season to Forget in Calgary 

Despite his past success, Neal’s production fell off significantly with the Calgary Flames last season. He scored a career-low, seven goals and 19 points for the Flames in 63 games.

For some reason, he was never really able to find his game in Calgary.

Some attribute that to him being burned out from two grueling seasons of hockey before 2018-19. He appeared in two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals (Nashillve Predators 2017, Vegas Golden Knights 2018). That perhaps shortened his off-season to train and recover. 

Others pointed out, that he wasn’t utilized for his scoring ability in Calgary. He did not fit in well to Bill Peters’ game plan and was given limited opportunities to see valuable minutes in the top-six.

Seems to Have Found a Home With the Edmonton Oilers

From what we have seen so far in 2019-20, it seems that Neal may have found a new home with the Edmonton Oilers. His play so far can definitely can be classified in the NHL early season surprises category.

The stats don’t lie! He currently has seven goals for the Oilers in four games and has already tied his goal totals from a season ago. 

Neal’s career looks revied and is excelling early for the Oilers. Being used on the team’s top-six and the first power-play unit, Neal looks to be his old self again. 

Why Neal’s Production Might be a Surprise and is it Sustainable?

After last season, many people began to write-off the 32-year-old as it seemed like he might have been on the decline. But from what we have seen thus far, last season might have been a one-off. 

Surprisingly, Neal seems to be as effective as ever. He is currently on pace to set a new career-high in goals and has a shot to break his career-high of 40 goals. 

Realistically, we shouldn’t expect Neal to score at this pace the entire season. Like all goal-scorers, he is bound to hit a few slumps. But at the end of the day, the Oilers brought Neal in to provide secondary scoring and he is doing just that.  

If Neal finishes this season with close to 25 goals, it might be considered a huge upgrade from Milan Lucic. The former Oiler was only able to score 16 goals in 161 games over the past two seasons. 

A Deeper Look at Anthony Mantha

Once a Highly Touted Prospect

Anthony Mantha was a highly touted junior player and was taken 20th overall by the Detroit Red Wings in the 2013 NHL Draft.

In Junior, Mantha was a dominant offensive player. He was a goal per game player (57 goals in 57 games) and put up 120 points in his final season of Junior hockey.

As a result, many saw him as a potential franchise player for the Wings for years to come.

A Slow Start to His NHL Career

To the disappointment of many Detroit fans, Mantha did not make the jump to the NHL as quickly as expected. Since being drafted in 2013, Mantha took the better part of four seasons to develop. He established himself as a legit NHL player for the Detroit Red Wings back in 2016-17.

But to be fair, the Red Wings are an organization that takes pride in taking time to develop their prospects and not rush them into the NHL.

Still Catching Up to His Draft Class?

It has been almost seven years since the Red Wings took Mantha back in the first round of the 2013 draft. At 25-years-old, it seems like Mantha still has some catching up to do.

Comparatively speaking, several of his draft cohorts (Nathan MacKinnon, Aleksander Barkov, Seth Jones, Bo Horvat, Max Domi, Jake Guentzel have already made a huge impact on their NHL teams.

However, to his credit, Mantha seems to have gained some ground over the past few seasons. He has scored at least 24 goals and 48 points in each of his past two seasons. 

From what we have seen so far this NHL season, it looks like Mantha is ready to take another step forward. 

Why Anthony Mantha’s Production is Included in NHL Early Season Surprises

In some ways, Mantha’s production this season comes as a surprise. Especially, when you consider his age (25) and the “slow start” to his NHL career. 

However, the 6’5″ 225-pound winger is currently leading the Red Wings in scoring with six goals and eight points in four games. His play too can fall into the NHL early season surprises category and looks like he can take his game to the next level. 

It’s a small sample size but if Mantha can produce at the same rate for most of this season, he should be able to set new career-highs. He has a shot to finish this season as a 30-goals and a 60+ point player. 

Mantha Going Forward

It remains to be seen whether 2019-20 will finally be the year where Mantha lives up to the hype as a first-rounder.

On paper, the Red Wings don’t have a deep team and should see plenty of opportunities to succeed. They also don’t have a lot of elite goal scorers in their lineup so they will need Mantha to score more than ever.

Especially if they want to keep up with all the talented offensive teams in the East.

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