James Neal vs. Nick Foligno

by Rick Roos on February 18, 2015
NickFoligno

 

Who is the better fantasy hockey own – James Neal or Nick Foligno?

 

This week’s match pits James Neal against Nick Foligno in what would’ve been an unthinkable battle just a few months ago. But fast forward to now, and we’re all wondering not only if Foligno’s nearly point per game scoring for this season is his new normal but also whether Neal can taste fantasy success outside of Pittsburgh. We’ll answer these questions while deciding which player is the better own – Cage Match starts now!

 

Career Path and Contract Status

It’s not often someone in his eighth season sets a career high in points, let alone after 49 games. Yet that’s what Foligno has done, already eclipsing his 47 point output from 2011-12, which not only had been his career high but also represented the only previous season where he’d topped 39 points.

Success was supposed to come sooner for Foligno, now 27, what with his impressive pedigree (son of 355 goal scorer Mike Foligno; drafted 28th overall in 2006); but things never gelled for him in Ottawa, as he couldn’t secure consistent top six time and was eventually dealt to Columbus for Marc Methot. Prior to this season, it seemed like Foligno was destined for more of the same in Columbus, where he’d barely produced at a 0.5 points per game pace.

Neal is also 27, but was drafted a year earlier than Foligno – 33rd overall by the Stars. After seasoning in the OHL and AHL, Neal landed in Dallas, posting 55 points in his second NHL campaign. Dallas parlayed Neal’s upward trajectory into a deal with the Pens that saw him (and Matt Niskanen) go to Pittsburgh for Alex Goligoski.

While with Pittsburgh, Neal did his best to make that trade look like highway robbery for the Pens, posting 178 points in 179 games over three seasons. But then he was traded to Nashville, as a key piece in bringing Patric Hornqvist to the Pens. So far with the Preds, Neal has seen his scoring pace dip back to the level of his Dallas days.

Foligno opted to re-sign with Columbus rather than enter unrestricted free agency, inking a six-year extension with an AAV of $5.5M. Neal is on year two of his own six year deal, with an AAV of $5M.

 

Ice Time (this and other tables reflect games through February 16th)

 

Season

Total Ice Time per game (rank among team’s forwards)

PP Ice Time per game (rank among team’s forwards)

SH Ice Time per game (rank among team’s forwards)

2014-15

19:12 (N.F.) – 3rd

17:46 (J.N.) – 3rd

2:42 (N.F.) – 3rd

2:59 (J.N.) – 2nd

1:25 (N.F.) – 8th

0:00 (J.N.)

2013-14

16:03 (N.F.) – 7th

18:26 (J.N.) – 4th

1:44 (N.F.) – 8th

3:50 (J.N.) – 3rd

0:12 (N.F.) – 9th

0:01 (J.N.) – 17th (tied)

2012-13

16:31 (N.F.) – 5th (tied)

17:28 (J.N.) – 6th

1:58 (N.F.) – 7th

3:59 (J.N.) – 3rd

0:05 (N.F.) 11th (tied)

0:00 (J.N.)

2011-12

14:38 (N.F.) – 6th

19:08 (J.N.) – 3rd

1:19 (N.F.) – 8th

3:55 (J.N.) – 2nd

0:10 (N.F.) – 11th

0:01 (J.N.) – 12th

 

Foligno’s huge increase in scoring isn’t due to a spike in his productive Ice Time (i.e., Total Ice Time minus SH Ice Time), as that stands at 17:47 and isn’t even 10% more than he received in 2012-13 when he tallied only 19 points in 45 games. An interesting note is according to Frozen Pool, Foligno has been stapled to Ryan Johansen ever since Foligno arrived in Columbus. And while both are having similar success this season, Foligno posted only 39 points in 70 games in 2013-14 while Johansen had 63 in 82. All this raises questions about whether Foligno was especially unlucky last season, unsustainably lucky this season, or a little bit of both. We’ll check that below.

The good news for Neal is with Nashville his Total Ice Time and PP Ice Time rank third and second, respectively, among the team’s forwards, which is the same as his best rankings with Pittsburgh. And thanks to him still receiving essentially no SH Ice Time, his productive Ice Time (just one second less than Foligno’s) is on a par with his final two Penguins seasons, when he scored 97 points in 99 total games.

But one glaring difference for Neal is his PP Ice Time per game, which now lags 20% below the lowest average he had in any season with the Pens. Given that he’s already receiving the second most PP Ice Time per game among all Predators forwards and no Predators forward since 2009-10 has finished a season with more than 3:00 per game on the PP, it’s un likely his PP Ice Time per game will increase in future seasons. And we’ll see below whether this has translated to a big drop in his PP Points pace.

 

Secondary Categories

 

Season

PIMs

(per game)

Hits

(per game)

Blocked Shots (per game)

Shots

(per game)

PP Points

(per game)

2014-15

0.60 (N.F.)

0.86 (J.N.)

2.62 (N.F.)

1.08 (J.N.)

0.75 (N.F.)

0.42 (J.N.)

2.19 (N.F.)

3.26 (J.N.)

0.41 (N.F.)

0.08 (J.N.)

2013-14

1.37 (N.F.)

0.93 (J.N.)

3.00 (N.F.)

0.98 (J.N.)

0.60 (N.F.)

0.39 (J.N.)

1.58 (N.F.)

4.03 (J.N.)

0.08 (N.F.)

0.44 (J.N.)

2012-13

0.62 (N.F.)

0.65 (J.N.)

2.20 (N.F.)

1.40 (J.N.)

0.73 (N.F.)

0.42 (J.N.)

1.53 (N.F.)

3.40 (J.N.)

0.06 (N.F.)

0.40 (J.N.)

2011-12

1.51 (N.F.)

1.08 (J.N.)

2.39 (N.F.)

1.35 (J.N.)

0.36 (N.F.)

0.18 (J.N.)

1.86 (N.F.)

4.11 (J.N.)

0.05 (N.F.)

0.37 (J.N.)

 

This table provides proof that PP scoring is crucial to overall production. Simply put, Foligno’s PP output is akin to what Neal used to get, while Neal’s woeful PP scoring rate is eerily reminiscent of what Foligno was posting in prior seasons. And lo and behold – Foligno is scoring like Neal did the with Pens, while Neal’s production has dropped back to what he was posting in Dallas.

In looking for explanations, the answer doesn’t lie with their teams, who’ve received comparable PP opportunities (180 for Nashville, 174 for Columbus). And although Columbus is converting on 22.1% of theirs (vs. 17.8% for Nashville), that’s led to only six extra PPGs. Thus, since Foligno is actually receiving less PP Ice Time but has amassed so many more PP Points compared to Neal, the answer likely lies in their 5×4 IPPs, which we’ll examine below.

Otherwise, their Secondary Category output doesn’t hold many surprises. Neal’s Shots still put him in the NHL’s top 20 overall, but are predictably down given that he’s no longer part of the high octane Pens offense. His output in Hits and Blocked Shots has held firm compared to last season, which means he’s still a solid multi-cat producer. Meanwhile, Foligno has seen his Shots climb, although a rate of 2.19 per game seems low for a nearly point per game scorer, which means we’ll need to check his PDO and Personal Shooting % numbers carefully. And while Foligno’s Hits are as outstanding as ever (Alex Ovechkin and Andrew Ladd are the only forwards with more hits and 45+ points) and his Blocked Shots remain well above average for a forward, his PIM have bounced up and down.

 

Luck-Based Metrics

 

Season

Personal Shooting Percentage

PDO (5×5)

IPP (5×5)

IPP (5×4)

Offensive Zone Starting % (5×5)

2014-15

19.0% (N.F.)

11.7% (J.N.)

1010 (N.F.)

1025 (J.N.)

73.0% (N.F.)

59.5% (J.N.)

76.9% (N.F.)

21.1% (J.N.)

48.7% (N.F.)

62.0% (J.N.)

2013-14

16.2% (N.F.)

11.3% (J.N.)

1007 (N.F.)

1011 (J.N.)

69.6% (N.F.)

67.4% (J.N.)

42.9% (N.F.)

62.2% (J.N.)

48.0% (N.F.)

57.9% (J.N.)

2012-13

8.7% (N.F.)

15.4% (J.N.)

1021 (N.F.)

1010 (J.N.)

70.0% (N.F.)

72.0% (J.N.)

28.6% (N.F.)

70.0% (J.N.)

48.1% (N.F.)

58.9% (J.N.)

2011-12

9.8% (N.F.)

12.2% (J.N.)

993 (N.F.)

984 (J.N.)

79.5% (N.F.)

69.1% (J.N.)

57.1% (N.F.)

61.5% (J.N.)

53.7% (N.F.)

64.4% (J.N.)

 

Neal’s 21.1% IPP at 5×4 isn’t just unsustainably unlucky, it’s also had a significant negative effect that masks Neal’s realistically achievable production. If it was 60%, and his 5×5 IPP was 65%, that would’ve meant an additional nine points, which in turn would put Neal’s full season scoring pace at 67 instead of his currently projected 52. And while his offensive zone starting % is ranks him 25th of the 311 forwards who’ve played 40+ games, his norm in Pittsburgh would’ve put him only down at 40 or so, which means he’s not getting a big boost from that – certainly not even close to compensate for his terrible luck in IPP. All in all, these metrics signify that in Nashville Neal is still a 65 point player, who just happens to be currently trapped in a bad luck cycle.

As for Foligno, it’s a good news bad news situation. The bad news is he’s not really a point per game player despite standing at 52 points in 53 games. If his unsustainably high personal shooting % and IPP numbers were lowered to what they were last season, then he’d lose ten points from his current total, and with that would be at a 65 point pace. But the good news is his breakout is real – that is, his days as barely a 0.5 points per game player appear to be in the past.

And a silver lining is that although Foligno’s career personal shooting % is only 12.3%, if we look at just this season and last it’s 17.6% for 227 Shots, which is more than a quarter of his career Shots total of 870. Therefore, it’s likely safe to figure that Foligno’s personal shooting % should remain at or above 14% in coming seasons, which in turn would suggest he’s now a realistic 60-70 point scorer, depending on how (un)lucky he gets in a particular season.

 

Ownership and Value

In Yahoo leagues, Foligno was drafted on average as the 39th LW (his only eligible position), while Neal, who’s LW and RW eligible, was drafted as the 10th LW. Since then, Foligno has risen to be the seventh rated LW but with only 83% ownership, compared to Neal, who remains owned in 96% of leagues despite being rated only the 17th best LW.

Although Neal’s dual position eligibility is a nice asset, his actual value now trails his name/perceived value, as evidenced by the fact that he’s owned in 96% of leagues despite being barely a top 20 LW. In contrast, Foligno’s actual value is greater than his perceived value, since even though he’s a top ten LW he’s owned in just over four out of five leagues.

 

Who Wins?

Once I finished researching this column, it dawned on me that Foligno is shaping up to be heir apparent to Chris Kunitz, what with being stapled to a very talented center in Ryan Johansen (not to suggest that Johansen is on an even par with Sidney Crosby – he’s not and won’t be) and bringing to the fantasy table a great combination of scoring and multi-cat output. Meanwhile, Neal will be getting used to life after Pittsburgh, although it won’t be as bad for him and poolies as this season would suggest.

To me, the data suggests similar a points output (65-point pace) from both players for the rest of the season, and next season as well. But as evidenced by him only being owned in 83% of Yahoo leagues despite nearly point-per-game scoring, if you were to trade for Foligno now, some of his owners might have doubts about his ability to produce well in future seasons, even though – as we saw above – 60 to 70 point production per season seems like it could be achieved. Meanwhile, Neal owners likely invested a lot to get him and/or can still can recall his recent production, which is why his ownership percentage remains high despite his ranking among LWs having dropped.

But things might change in the offseason. Once poolies – particularly in those in one-year leagues – get ready to draft, Neal’s perceived value likely will take a hit due to him falling short of expectations and perhaps being on “guys to avoid” lists, whereas Foligno’s full season of top production (he should still easily hit 70 points even if his good luck runs out) will likely have made believers out of many of the nearly 20% who don’t own him now, and in turn will lead to his perceived value increasing.

If you want to get Foligno in a keeper, either try to trade for him during this season when he hits a small rough patch or take a slightly bigger risk and hope he starts slower in 2015-16, in which case his owners might panic and try to trade him for a lot less than he’s truly worth for fear that his 2014-15 was a fluke. As for Neal, best to wait until the offseason to make a run at him, because even if his PP scoring rebounds as expected he’s still likely to finish with under 60 points, which will be the number staring his owners in the face over the summer, convincing many to be willing to part with Neal for less than his actual value, which, as I noted, is still likely closer to 65 points.

 

 

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