Ottawa's lackluster start has led to several players bearing the brunt of fan criticism. Perhaps no player has been a bigger lightning rod so far this year than Chris Neil. A perennial fan favourite in Ottawa, both Neil's play and leadership have come under attack from an increasing number of fans. But has his play deserved such criticism? Has he really been worse than in previous years? Or is this just a case of greater expectations being placed on a player because he now wears a letter?
To me, it looks like Chris Neil has lost a step at 34 years of age. Poor penalties early in the season hurt the team and frustrated fans, but in the last few games his discipline has improved. Still, this is Chris Neil and last year's penalty total (144 PIM) was the lowest of his career. He led the team in minor penalties last season with 27 (10 more than second on the list Erik Condra). He's currently on pace for 55 minors this season, 2 shy of his career high (Neil had 57 minors in 2005-06 and 2007-08, as well as 51 in 2006-07 as he adjusted to the post-lockout NHL). There are probably a few more undisciplined moments in his future.
He seems slower getting to the puck and this is hurting his ability to be effective as a forechecker and physical player. He's averaging 11:45 TOI/G in 12 games this season, which is more than two minutes less than his average last season (13:51 TOI/G in 2012-2013). With one goal in 12 games, he's on pace for just 8 points this season, which would be the lowest total of his career. It seems unlikely Neil will hit double-digits in goals and 20+ points again (the benchmark for a successful Neil season in terms of offensive production) if his current production rates remain the same as he ages.
The penalty issues aren't new. At times in the past, he's been an undisciplined player. His point total is disappointing, but that was the case in 2008-09 (10 P in 60 G) and 2010-11 (16 P in 80 G) as well. What's different is the "A" on his jersey.
I wasn't a fan of the decision to give him a letter at the time because his most lauded leadership qualities (gets in the face of teammates at practice, holds people accountable, is outspoken etc.) aren't things you need to wear an "A" to do. In addition, he's an aging role player, whose spot on the team will be marginalized the older he gets. It seems unlikely at this stage in his career that Neil can play a leadership role that is drastically different than the one he's already carved out with this team.
What do you think? How would you evaluate his play so far this season? How would you grade his time wearing the "A"?