Call it a “change of scenery,” or probably most directly, trading problems. Either way, two rivals in the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers made a truly resounding trade on Friday, with the main takeaway being that Milan Lucic goes to the Flames, while James Neal is bound for Edmonton.
Multiple reporters indicate that it’s close to a one-for-one deal, but there are some crucial details to hash out to fully evaluate this fascinating trade between two hostile local rivals.
Salary retention is key, because if it were a vanilla deal, it would be remarkably close to even, pure cap hit-wise.
Both players are 31, and both Lucic and Neal will see their contracts run through four more seasons (ending after 2022-23). Lucic’s cap hit is $6 million, which is barely more than Neal’s $5.75M.
Of course, when you’re talking about contracts teams largely want to get away from, it’s often about more than just cap hits. There are some significant ins and outs to that side of the discussion, including Lucic’s deal being essentially “buyout proof.” Neal, meanwhile, would be easier for the Oilers to buy out, if they decide to do that after an audition with the team.
As we await the crucial element of salary retention, let’s ponder both players.
Lucic’s tough times
After a productive first season in Edmonton where Lucic scored 23 goals and 50 points in 2016-17, Lucic plummeted down the depth chart and in production. This past season was rock bottom, as Lucic scored just six goals and 20 points in 79 games.
The bet on Lucic, some might say in part leading to the dreadful Taylor Hall trade, stands as one of the landmark gaffes of Peter Chiarelli’s Era of Error in Edmonton. It was clear that both the player and team needed to part ways, so now there’s at least that peace in that regard.
A bumpy path for Neal, and brutal times in Calgary
Whether you like Neal – a player who absolutely goes over the line at times, when he loses his cool – or not, it’s tough not to feel for him after the last several years.
He was traded from the Stars to the Penguins in 2011, scapegoated a bit out of Pittsburgh on his way to Nashville in 2014, then scooped up by Vegas in the 2017 expansion draft, only to sign with the Flames (possibly in a relatively lukewarm free agent market) last summer. Now this trade sends Neal to Edmonton, making this the 31-year-old’s six NHL team, and his fourth in his past four seasons.
Despite that upheaval, Neal had been a guy who could score goals nonetheless. He peaked with 40 during his best days with Malkin in Pittsburgh (an 81-point output in 2011-12), but he sniped in multiple climates, generating 20+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons.
And then this Calgary season happened.
Neal never clicked with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, as Elias Lindholm instead took that plum gig. Neal slipped lower and lower in the lineup, sometimes becoming a healthy scratch, and ended 2018-19 with Lucic-like numbers (though in fewer games), as Neal managed only seven goals and 19 points. He was also an all-around disaster, as you can see from RAPM charts via Evolving Hockey that argue that, in some ways, Lucic was actually better last season, as Lucic at least wasn’t as much of a defensive disaster as Neal. Faint praise, but still:
Stay tuned for the full details, as if the Oilers retain a substantial portion of Lucic’s contract, it might seem like a more equitable trade for Calgary. As it stands, though, well … some very bright Flames fans are very displeased.
At first blush, Neal seems more likely to provide some value. That’s especially true if he rekindles his considerable sniping touch, as he showed during prolific years earlier in his career, particularly riding shotgun with Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh. If you can’t score goals with Connor McDavid, you may be toast, and that’s one of the reasons Lucic flamed out on his way to the Flames.
This post will be updated with full trade details and analysis of both players, who have had great moments in the past but struggled mightily once joining the Flames and Oilers respectively.