The outcome of the James Neal-Milan Lucic trade was a storyline to follow in the 2019-20 NHL season. Now, the NHL has paused play amid concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. If the regular season doesn’t resume, do the Calgary Flames or the Edmonton Oilers win the trade in its first year?
But first, let’s remember: it wasn’t a one-for-one deal. In the trade, the Oilers covered 12.5 percent of Lucic’s annual $6 million salary. They also included a conditional third-round draft pick. This pick goes to the Flames only if Neal reaches 21 goals and Lucic scores at least 10 fewer than him in the 2019-20 season.
As of the pause in play, Neal has 19 goals and Lucic has 8. If the regular season has indeed concluded, the conditional draft pick won’t materialize for the Flames. Does this cast new light on which team won the trade?
A Battle of Alberta Trade: Milan Lucic for James Neal
The trade occurred on July 19, 2019. Lucic had spent three seasons with the Oilers as part of a seven-year, $42 million contract. Neal had only played the first season of a five-year, $28.75 million contract with the Flames.
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Lucic’s play had fallen off since the first year of his contract when he had put up 50 points. He followed that with seasons of 34 and then 20 points. His cap-hit grew to be a distraction, which made for difficult times in Edmonton.
Neal, meanwhile, quickly wore out his welcome in Calgary. His meager seven goals in the 2018-19 season were easily a new career low. “The Real Deal” was even a healthy scratch in the team’s final 2019 playoff loss to the Colorado Avalanche. His debut season in Calgary was, in a word, disastrous.
Uncharacteristically, the rival Alberta teams connected to exchange their pricy, long-term burdens. The Oilers covered salary and included a conditional pick in the trade, which suggests that the Flames received the lesser player. Though, to be fair, Lucic actually outscored Neal by one point in the 2018-19 season.
Milan Lucic’s Flames and James Neal’s Oilers Seasons
As of the March 12 pause, Lucic played in 68 games for the Flames, putting up 8 goals and 12 assists for 20 points. 9 of those 20 points came in the most recent 15 games, after a slow start to the season. He added 54 penalty minutes and 198 hits. With 20 points, Lucic again beat Neal’s production with the Flames by one point.
Lucic remains his now understated self with the Flames. Even if 25 points or so is the player he is today, Lucic knows that. And the Flames knew what they were getting, too. He delivers a physical presence on the ice and doesn’t overextend his abilities. He’s also emerged as a fan favourite in the team’s bottom six.
Neal missed some time during the season. He appeared in 55 games and scored 19 goals to go with 12 assists. 17 of his 31 points came on the power-play, which contributed to his team-worst minus-20 rating. His 31 points with the Oilers also surpass the 20 that Lucic registered last season.
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Neal’s stat line with the Oilers shouldn’t be diminished. But a different view of his campaign is made clear by his recent scoring drought – he had 3 goals in the final 18 games before play was suspended. All three goals came on Dec. 31 against the New York Rangers – he had zero goals in the other 17 games.
Neal also scored nine goals – including one four-goal game – in the season’s first eight games. Simply put, it’s been an erratic year for his goal-scoring. The numbers have been padded by a few single-game eruptions as well as a net-front assignment on the power-play alongside Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Neal’s minus-20 rating reflects his inability to contribute at even strength and his questionable defensive play.
Coronavirus Pause Impacts Flames-Oilers Trade
When the NHL suspended play on Mar. 12, Neal’s stat line froze at 19 goals. He was well on his way to the 21 goals that would meet the conditions of the third-round draft pick. Lucic was also trailing him by a sufficient 11 goals.
It remains unknown if regular-season games will resume this season. Neal would then fall short of 21 goals, so the Flames won’t receive the third-round draft pick. Instead, the trade reads as Neal to the Oilers and Lucic at 87.5 percent of his salary to the Flames.
Judging by the conditions of the third-round draft pick, the Flames were aware that Lucic is likely past his days as a perennial 20-goal scorer. But they also wanted compensation if Neal returned to form with the Oilers. If the pause ends the regular season, the Oilers pushed Neal’s contributions to a maximum without having to surrender the draft pick.
Who Won the Neal-Lucic Trade in Year One?
The Oilers win Year 1 of the trade, but it’s not as clear-cut as it might seem. Had the Flames secured the third-round pick, they would’ve deprived their rival of a mid-round selection while acquiring the more consistent depth player. The Oilers also pay Lucic to play against them for three more seasons.
But, if the 2019-20 regular season is not resumed, the Flames miss out on the draft pick. For this reason, it’s difficult to suggest that they won the trade. A third-round selection is far from a guaranteed NHLer, but the pick would’ve lessened the blow of Neal’s moderate resurgence. Instead, the Oilers got a bounce-back performance from Neal that pushed the conditional pick to its limit without activating it.
However, few Flames fans or members of the organization can complain about the trade’s outcome. The team wanted Lucic to fill a bottom-six role. And he did just that – effectively, too. The greater concern was to offload Neal’s contract by whatever means necessary. Like Lucic, Neal is no longer a game-changer either, but in Year 1 of the trade, Neal’s goals and the currently unmet draft pick conditions lean to the Oilers’ advantage.
If Flames fans are disappointed by the news (and the general absence of NHL hockey), they can delight in this: Neal actually scored in his final game before the pause in play. But it was in the wrong net, as he victimized Oiler goalie (and former Flame), Mike Smith. He otherwise went goalless in his last 13 games. Lucic closed out play on a high note, with a goal, an assist, and seven hits in the Flames’ last game. There’s still room for Lucic and the Flames to win this trade in the years to come.
Lucas Anderson lives in Calgary, AB, and covers the Calgary Flames for THW. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto, where he completed his Master’s in Cinema Studies. Lucas writes on topics including sports, film, visual culture, and history. He still thinks about the Atlanta Thrashers, his former favourite NHL team.