Just as the workweek was about to wrap up with nearly nothing newsworthy going on, a big bang took place in Alberta: the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers found a way to move two seemingly unmovable contracts. On Friday, the Flames sent James Neal to the Oilers in exchange for Milan Lucic and a conditional draft pick, with Edmonton retaining a portion of Lucic's $6-million cap hit, and the trade comes at a time when both players are exiting the worst seasons of their respective careers.
Brought into Calgary last summer on a five-year, $28.75-million pact and expected to provide some scoring punch to the top-six, Neal flopped in his lone season with the Flames. In 63 games, he managed just seven goals – the first time in his career he failed to score at least 20 in a campaign – and finished with 19 points, all the while averaging a career-low 14:57 in ice time. Granted, Neal did miss a stretch of time due to injury during the regular season, but it was a disastrous season for the 31-year-old despite skating on a team that finished atop the Western Conference.
Assuming the Oilers are confident enough that last season was nothing more than a blip and the veteran can regain his form, Neal does, however, become a prime candidate to play alongside in Edmonton's top six, quite possibly alongside one or both of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. And let's be realistic: even with Neal's struggles in Calgary, he instantly becomes the best option the Oilers have as a top-six winger. Not only is Neal a big, 6-foot-3, 212-pound presence who can bring the physical edge, he's Edmonton's only proven veteran top-six option, he has more offensive upside than Lucic and his 20-goal pedigree rockets him up the depth chart.
Like Neal, Lucic, 31, is coming off of a dreadful season, his six goals and 20 points marking the third consecutive campaign in which he's seen a downturn in production. After beginning his time in Edmonton – and the regrettable seven-year, $42-million pact he signed in July 2016 – with a decent 23-goal, 50-point effort, Lucic took a step back in 2017-18, producing only 10 goals and 34 points, and followed that up with this past season's poor output.
Given how his game has trended downwards over the past few seasons, it's unlikely we see a return to form. That said, Lucic is now in a situation where he's on a contending team, and the Flames will have the opportunity to bury him on the third line without feeling as cap-strapped as the Oilers were by the deal. Playing with slightly less pressure given the retained salary, Lucic could be a decent bottom-six fit in Calgary.
The move also marks one of the first big deals by Oilers GM Ken Holland, and it sees the new team architect rid himself of one of the most burdensome deals from the Peter Chiarelli era. And if nothing else, this serves as a good change of scenery for two veteran wingers who were in dire need of a new opportunity in the wake of terrible seasons.
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