By any objective measure, the Calgary Flames gave up the better player when they traded James Neal to the Edmonton Oilers for Milan Lucic. The Flames could still end up winning this trade, though.
The history of trades between the two rivals is brief, for good reason. Furthermore, the few trades that they’ve made have one recurring theme: They’re all relatively insignificant. All due respect to the players Lucic and Neal once were, that trend continues with this deal.
Based on their recent history, both Lucic and Neal are shells of those guys, hollowed-out husks, if you will. That doesn’t take away how they can still contribute on their respective new teams, though. The Flames thought highly enough of Lucic that they felt the deal was worth it. Here are the three likeliest reasons why:
3. Oilers Retained Salary
Admittedly, the $750,000 of Lucic’s salary that the Oilers retained isn’t a lot. It does symbolize that the Flames acknowledge they’re getting the worse player in the deal. Few would disagree with that assessment.
Lucic ,who actually scored a single point more than Neal last season (20 to 19), may be younger and bigger. He’s also slower and less cut out for today’s NHL. So, why make the deal? In part because of the lowered expectations that come from the $750,000 handout care of the Oilers.
There’s no denying the Neal contract was a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t as obvious as one as the Lucic deal, when it was first signed by the Oilers back on the first day of free agency in 2016, but it definitely didn’t turn out even half as well as the Flames had quasi-realistically hoped.
At least this way, the four years left on Neal’s deal at $5.75 million per turn into a slightly more digestible four years of Lucic at $5.25 million per instead. It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless. Thankfully, it’s not all the Flames got.
2. The Conditional Pick
There’s also the conditional third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Entry Draft that the Flames picked up in the deal. Granted, it only materializes under a very specific scenario, but it’s a potential pick, nonetheless. Those are valuable regardless, with both Lucic and Neal being second-rounders back in the day.
Like them or, more likely, not, both Lucic and Neal were steals based on where they were picked and how they have performed up to their recent pasts. Hell, on the Flames’ current roster, they have 10 different players once selected in the third or later, including superstar Johnny Gaudreau (No. 104 in 2011) and Norris Trophy-winner Mark Giordano (unsigned).
The pick theoretically gives them a chance to get someone similar… better than either Neal or Lucic, especially at the stages at which their careers currently are. If someone had told you a week ago that the Flames just got a third-round pick for Neal, chances are good you would have taken it and run. Think of it along those lines.
Of course, the pick would just be a chance to get a decent player, and it’s all hypothetical, because the conditions attached to it are oddly specific. Nevertheless, there’s at least a passable chance of both Neal scoring 21 or more goals and Lucic getting at least 10 fewer.
1. Lucic and Neal’s Different Roles
Consider the following: Since Lucic scored just six times in 79 games last season, it’s not a stretch that he would fall well short of 11 to begin with in 2019-20, “automatically” satisfying the first condition.
As for the second condition, up until last season, when Neal scored seven goals, 21 was the least he had ever scored in a single campaign. Of course, getting back to that mark will take some doing, but Neal is already thinking about playing with Connor McDavid. Sure, it’s a tad premature, but is it really that impossible of a scenario? The Oilers’ top pure winger last season was Alex Chiasson (22 goals, 38 points). After him, it was Zack Kassian.
The Oilers’ desperately need depth on the wings and Neal is someone who has a long history of delivering, especially when playing with ultra-talented centermen (Sidney Crosby/ Evgeni Malkin). He may have lost a step or two along the way, but there’s no tonic better than a regular shift with arguably the best player in the game.
Neal will at least likely get an upgrade relative to the 14:57 of ice time per game he got with the Flames last year. Due to the depth the Flames have up front, especially the emergence of Elias Lindholm, Neal was never going to get the chance to play with Gaudreau moving forward anyway. And he’s more of a scorer, who wasn’t cut out for the bottom-six role into which he was forced.
Compare and contrast that with Lucic, who’s tailor-made for less minutes (13:14 last season) and more of a physical role than Neal could provide. The Flames arguably wanted to get tougher and they just did. They can also bury Lucic in the lineup guilt-free, knowing:
- He’s likelier to succeed in a diminished role,
- The fewer minutes he gets, the less likely he is to score enough to negate the condition for the third-round draft pick,
- Expectations for a good statistical season from him would be close to nil whatever they end up doing and
- There’s seemingly an inherent understanding on the part of everyone involved, including Flames fans, that signing him to begin with wasn’t even their mistake.
Sure, they’re willingly taking on Lucic’s horrible contract. That could conceivably turn into a mistake instead, but it only looks bad in a vacuum.
Big picture, they gave up a horrible contract of their own that wasn’t working out. The Flames are making the best of a bad situation, giving themselves a half-decent chance at succeeding in the process. As far as trades go, between the rival Oilers or not, there are undeniably worse deals to be made. This one can actually work out for everyone involved. That’s a win-win, even under less-than-ideal circumstances.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.