Revisiting the Milan Lucic for James Neal Trade

The big stamp that Ken Holland put on the Oilers roster in his first summer as general manager was trading Milan Lucic to the Calgary Flames for James Neal. Both players were at the top of every single ‘worst contract’ list in the season leading up to the deal. Lucic’s play had fallen dramatically since his days in Boston. James Neal had the worst season of his career from Bill Peters’ doghouse. Both players needed a fresh start in a new city with a new role, and they got it.

Early impressions were full of awe at how either GM was able to trade their respective players, given the remaining amount owed and player performance. But, with a bit extra thrown in from Edmonton to Calgary, the deal was done.

We were eager to see how this trade would play out. After all, Milan Lucic was clearly no longer able to play effectively in a top-six role, which was where Edmonton needed him to be. And James Neal was still better than bottom-six grinder/healthy scratch. It comes as no surprise that both players have earned some praise for how they’ve adjusted and adapted early in the season, but no one predicted how hot James Neal would be to start the year.

Eight goals in six games. He has already surpassed Milan Lucic’s six and his own total of seven from 2018-19. Including a four-goal game against the New York Islanders. Now, there is no way Neal keeps up a pace near this level for the season. His shooting percentage right now is a staggering 38%. Oilers fans are now no strangers to a player coming in with low expectations and lighting it up early in the season (see: Chiasson, Alex). Though, Neal does have more of a track record through his career than Chiasson does. But the early indications are that Neal has found a suitable role for himself and is developing chemistry within the Oilers’ system and with their star players as he returns to a scoring role in the top-six.

Milan Lucic, on the other hand, is finding the scoresheet in other ways. He has zero points in six games, but has managed to rack up 26 penalty minutes in his role as a physical agitator for the Flames. Lucic has done well at making the best of his skillset at this point in his career. No one can expect him to produce offensively, as his hands and speed are not up for the challenge in today’s game. But, he can still do stuff like this to be effective.

Of course, as is normal with trades, we need to analyze them extensively to find out who won and who lost. And early on, anyways, you do not have to look too hard at this one to find a winner and a loser. Even the media are getting frustrated at the prospect of the Oilers winning a trade early on, as they seem to be unable to discuss the trade without a shot at the Oilers’ playoff hopes or making sure we don’t forget Lucic has a lot of penalty minutes.

It sounds like they’re grasping at straws and just can’t admit that after so many years of losing trades and players underperforming, someone comes in and over performs for a bit early in his time with the team.

But, maybe these guys are on to something. What if this trade was not best evaluated in terms of straight production? That there are more factors to consider that will ultimately likely leave this trade as a win-win (or even a no-winner) situation?

This is what I likely feel is the case. This wasn’t a trade necessarily made to make teams better, it was a trade to find a way to better utilize assets (and expensive ones at that). Both teams are already pushing the cap and need to find ways to have a more effective and efficient lineup. Rather than continue to expect and try to get $6-million of Milan Lucic to contribute offensively in a system and role he could not perform in, it was best suited to find a place for him where he could have some pressure taken off of him with different expectations on performance.

Likewise, rather than hold onto a $6-million scorer being turned into a bottom-six grinder and occasional healthy scratch, try and find someone who does fill that role so at least you are getting more for that cap hit.

With the amount that both players are being paid and their trade value due to performance, there was no way to offload the cap hit entirely to reallocate it in other ways.

Edmonton and Calgary have both accomplished this. Though Edmonton did have to take a bit of extra salary and give up a potential draft pick to seal the deal.

Looking at each player involved shows why it’s a win-win deal too.

Lucic had spent a couple years as a whipping boy for the Oilers’ fanbase. With mediocre performances, uninspired play, and a clear mismatch between player and system, the last couple years in Edmonton was a mentally exhausting stretch for Lucic. As the team tried time and time again to play him in a big role with skilled players, he was never utilized properly within the team’s system during his struggles which just made things worse.

James Neal went to Calgary after spending a season in Vegas but quickly found himself underutilized and in the doghouse with his new team. The player who has put up 20 goals in each of his seasons leading up to 2018-19 was being played as a grinder, bottom-six role with a massive drop in ice time. That is a major hit to a player’s ego, especially when it is out of nowhere as it was with Neal.

Now, we have Lucic filling that role in Calgary and he is much more suited to do it. His physical presence, team-first mentality, and leadership are an excellent fit for that lineup. He gets to play this role with significantly less pressure and the chance to relax a little bit.

On the other hand, James Neal and his playstyle work in Edmonton. He has more speed, a better shot, and better hands. And, personally, the most important improvement is Neal’s willingness to plant himself in the slot to tip shots (which he has shown to be good at) or pick up rebounds for second chances or to maintain possession. A player doing this is important when you are on the ice with scoring threats like McDavid, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins. This particular part of offensive play is something Lucic did not do much of in Edmonton for whatever reason.

We all like to pick a clear winner and loser in trades to grab some bragging rights and rub it in other fanbases’ faces. But, with this particular trade, not only is it too early to be decisively making winner-loser determinations, the benefit to the lineup and cap utilization for both teams involved may end up leaving both teams as winners in the long-run.

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