Historically, when the Edmonton Oilers and “one for one” appear in the same sentence, bad things happen. Apocalyptic, hysterical, team-crippling things. Punchlines with years and years of mileage. This isn’t that. Peter Chiarelli is gone, and now, miraculously, so is Milan Lucic. Under just about any circumstances, that would make the trade with Calgary executed just before the weekend a good one for the Oilers. So it’s almost a bonus that James Neal, who the Oilers got in return, has a good chance of being an actually useful player.
Neal and Lucic have a lot in common, superficially. Neal, who will turn 32 before the start of the season, is a year older. Both have four years remaining on their contracts; Lucic earns a gaudy $6M a year, Neal $5.75M. And both were absolutely awful last season. Just downright cruddy. Neal had just seven goals in 63 games in 2018–19, and, somehow, that was more than Lucic.
The difference is that Lucic has been declining since he signed that seeming albatross of a contract with Edmonton three years ago, while Neal has had just one bad year—a down year, he hopes, and the Oilers have good reason to believe it one. Last season was Neal’s first in his 11-year career where he failed to score at least 20 goals, making him, unlike Lucic, a prime candidate for a bounceback season.
“I haven’t fallen off a cliff yet,” Neal joked. “I stay away from those, don’t go near cliffs.”
So what went wrong for Neal in Calgary? Or to put it another, more Oilercentric way, how did a guy who started the season on the top line of a 107-point team do so little, and is there any reason to think the same thing won’t happen on a worse team?
“You can’t jam a square peg into a round hole,” Flames GM Brad Treliving told Calgary media after the trade. “I enjoyed my time with James. James has been a good player in this league for a long time and will continue to be a good player. I wish him well … but sometimes it doesn’t work.
“Whether it’s that James has played a lot of hockey, or we didn’t put him in the right spots, or we didn’t put him with the right people, it just didn’t fit.”
For as good as Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are, Neal was never able to mesh with them. All three are shooters, and the two young stars are more able to create their own chances than is Neal, who has generally thrived as a right wing alongside centers who are more traditional distributors. In short order, Neal found himself sinking on the depth chart, as low as Calgary’s low-firepower third line. That meant reduced minutes, which meant even less chance for him to find any sort of groove. He ignominiously ended the season as a healthy scratch for the Flames’ first-round elimination.
What Neal needs is a center who will set him up, and he needs consistent minutes. New Oilers GM Ken Holland, who has his work cut out for him in Edmonton, intends to give him both.
“James Neal’s a guy who scored 20-plus goals a year for 10 years and had a tough year,” Holland said. “So we’re hoping with our center-ice men and more ice time that he can bounce back.”
Whatever Edmonton’s flaws, they have an embarrassment of riches at center. Depending on whether new coach Dave Tippett decides to split up Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, Neal will likely end up on the second line alongside either Draisaitl or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Either would be the type of center that Neal’s game needs, and the situation promises healthy minutes without the pressure of being on the top line.
I don’t come here to tell you that Neal is guaranteed to bounce back, or that Milan Lucic won’t also benefit from a change of scenery. But Lucic’s stint in Edmonton was so disastrous, and the evidence pile larger that his decline was no fluke, that the only possible way for the Oilers to lose a Lucic trade was not to make one. That it wasn’t just a salary dump, that they might’ve gotten real value in James Neal, is a bonus, and has strong potential to be a sizable one.