When the Edmonton Oilers landed James Neal in a fascinating, unlikely trade with the Calgary Flames involving Milan Lucic, many thought that Neal’s (once?)-deadly shot could be revived by Connor McDavid, a superstar who happens to make almost everyone look good.
(Except, erp, maybe Lucic?)
Even the most optimistic of Oilers fans and Neal stans probably didn’t see this coming, though.
Neal put on a show against the New York Islanders on Tuesday, scoring four goals, including a natural hat trick from late in the first period to early in the second. This gives Neal an impressive six goals in his first three games as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, with all of those tallies happening in the past two games.
No doubt about it, McDavid is making life easier for Neal, who couldn’t quite beat out Elias Lindholm for a spot with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan last season, eventually losing a spot altogether at times for the Flames.
You can’t totally dismiss Neal’s part of the sniping equation, though. The 32-year-old’s first of four goals on Tuesday was unassisted, and Neal’s fourth goal was assisted by Tomas Jurco and Oscar Klefbom. Ultimately, McDavid and Neal helped the Oilers earn a decisive 5-2 win against the Islanders.
Check out Neal’s four-goal outburst in the video above this post’s headline.
To give you some quick perspective: Neal only scored seven goals and 19 points during all of his disastrous 63-game regular season with Calgary in 2018-19. To add even more perspective, Lucic, 31, only managed six goals in 79 contests during his final year with Edmonton in 2018-19.
Plenty of people felt a little restless regarding Ken Holland’s first offseason as a GM, particularly since the former Red Wings executive seems to be getting paid big bucks. The Neal – Lucic trade could be something Holland could hang his hat on, especially with Neal’s hot start.
So far, the story for Lucic’s start with the Flames hasn’t been very pretty.
While Lucic could break through on Tuesday (Calgary is facing Los Angeles on Tuesday), he went through his first two Flames games without a goal or an assist. He’s instead been racking up trips to the penalty box, generating 21 PIM through those first two games, including a moment where he, uh, “stuck up for his teammate” by punching Nikita Zadorov.
Through those two games, Lucic logged 13:46 and 8:38 time on ice, which was not much more than what Neal logged in his second game with Edmonton alone (19:28).
One would think that Neal might empathize with Lucic a bit there. While the Oilers are, on paper, a pitiful team on the wings — a big reason why people believed that the big forward would get plenty of reps on McDavid’s line – the Flames have superior options, which means Lucic will need to battle for meaningful minutes. So far, it doesn’t seem like Lucic is having much better luck than Neal did last year.
Of course, it’s early.
That time-related point is key, actually, because there’s one way we might look at this more positively for Calgary over the long haul. As you can see from Cap Friendly, Lucic’s salary goes below his $6M cap hit starting in 2019-20, and is quite low after salary bonuses get paid out. Maybe that would open the door for the Flames to get rid of that cap hit over the next few years, which could be crucial in adding the extra oomph that perhaps Lucic won’t provide?
It’s a thought … but even then, it’s a bit of a stretch, especially since Lucic has certain clauses that allow him to decide his future.
In the present, this is looking like a big win so far for the Oilers, even if Neal is almost certain to cool off. Considering the rivalry between Edmonton and Calgary, chances are, Flames fans are going to hear about this disparity. Like, a lot.