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James Neal Looks Like The Real Deal Again

Photo: Kathy Willens (AP)

It would be ludicrous and premature, after just three games, to declare that the Oilers definitely, definitely won the James Neal–for–Milan Lucic trade with the Flames. But: I declared it after zero games, so why pop that take in the freezer now?

Neal, with a four-goal night against the Islanders on Tuesday, has now scored six in Edmonton’s first three games, nearly matching his total of seven all last season in a miserable year in Calgary.

“He had an off year last year, but it’s crazy how the hockey world seems to forget he scored 20-plus goals for 10 years,” said teammate Zack Kassian. “That doesn’t happen by fluke.”

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It’s not precisely that “the hockey world” forgot it; it’s just the Flames that inexplicably seemed to, and right after they had signed Neal to a five-year, $28.75 million contract. When Neal didn’t mesh right away with Calgary’s top centers, they dropped him to the third line, which didn’t match his talent or his particular skillset.

More than just offering a fresh start, Edmonton has so far put Neal in a position to succeed, slotting him on Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’s second line, and, more importantly in the early going, on their top power-play unit alongside two of the best forwards in hockey (four of Neal’s six goals this year have come on the man-advantage).

“Last year was tough,” Neal said. “I didn’t play much, I was kind of in a checking role that I’d never really been in before. It was just kind of weird overall. I just really never felt like I got a chance to play there. It’s kind of weird when you sign a five-year deal and you think you’re going to go in and be a top player, and it’s not really the way it worked out.”

And how’s Lucic doing in Calgary so far? Well, he’s got no points through three games, but he did fight a guy in a loss last night.

This could obviously all go sideways, but Neal’s still just 32, not over the hill by any stretch, and last year’s debacle is more than balanced by the fact that he’s scored at least 20 goals in literally every season he’s played, so it shouldn’t and won’t surprise anyone if he’s a useful player on an Oilers team that needs all the useful non-McDavid, non-Draisaitl players it can get. And Edmonton’s off to a 3-0-0 start; so far, so good.

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