James Neal: Oilers Most Likely Moved Before the 2020-21 Season

As we noted when we took at look at the future of Kris Russell, next season, the Edmonton Oilers will have some decisions to make. As NHL owners and GM’s meet in conference calls this week — much of the talk likely surrounding next season’s potential salary cap — the topic of compliance buyouts will undoubtedly come up.

In a time where teams are looking to recoup losses, compliance buyouts will give teams a chance to alleviate some of the financial pressure from a variety of factors. From having less productive players making big money on their books to getting a do-over on some extremely unwise free agency decisions, there are more than a few teams that would love an opportunity to simply scratch a contract from their salary cap.

In the Edmonton Oilers case, compliance buyout or not, the franchise will need to make a decision on a player like James Neal.

James Neal vs. Other Forwards

No doubt, there are good things to be said about James Neal, especially as it relates to how he contributed to the Oilers early on in the 2019-20 season. The question will become, is his 20-or-so goals worth the $5.75 million per season he occupies on the Oilers’ salary cap over the next three seasons?

James Neal Edmonton Oilers Jonathan Quick Los Angeles Kings
James Neal of the Edmonton Oilers screens goaltender Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Ask most fans and they’ll tell you the Oilers won the Neal for Milan Lucic trade by a landslide. Even if it turns out the conditional pick that would go to Calgary winds up being a go because of a pro-rated NHL season, it’s still a win. But, a free pass to move Neal’s salary, if given the option, or a trade to another team looking for a 20-goal man, might be tempting for Edmonton. This is assuming they think they have other, less-expensive options.

Even if there aren’t wingers who can consistently manage to score 20 goals on this Oilers current roster, there’s a lot that can be done with nearly $6 million and some of the Oilers forward prospects are trending in the right direction. Look no further than a player like Kailer Yamamoto, who made Neal more expendable than he was when the season began.

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How Important Is Neal’s Power Play Contribution?

One of the areas where Neal excelled was his contributions on the Oilers power play — a special teams area that was at or near the tops of the NHL standings most of the season. Of his 19 goals, 12 of them were power play markers. That’s important as the Oilers look to continue strong special teams next season.

Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid
Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Then again, the Oilers power play remained strong without Neal. Whether that was Alex Chiasson or another winger willing to get in tight on the goaltender, putting someone out there with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins meant it was easy points for almost anyone.

If Edmonton can find someone with a propensity to hang around the net and land a player with a shoot-first mentality, they’ll be fine in that area.

Related: Oilers Outsider: 10 Thoughts Through 10 Games

Neal Is Too Expensive Not To Have A Top-Six Role

After Neal returned from his injury, there wasn’t really a consistent place for him in the lineup. Sometimes he was on the top line, sometimes the third line. Edmonton had depth and as such, Neal’s role wasn’t defined.

Even with a healthy Neal, he wasn’t always the first call on the top power play unit and that was telling.

If the Oilers are going to invest big dollars into anyone, Neal included, they’ll need to know where that player slots on a consistent basis.

How Do the Oilers Move Neal?

Should the NHL offer compliance buyouts, the answer seems obvious. Considering there is no confirmation this will happen, that leaves a traditional buyout or a trade.

James Neal Edmonton Oilers
James Neal, Edmonton Oilers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The traditional buyout route saves the Oilers $3.833 million on the cap over the next three seasons. It also adds $1.91 million to the cap starting in the 2023 season and through the end of 2025-26. Short-term, it’s a good move. Long-term, it’s more difficult to gauge just how much that could sting. Contracts for players like Ethan Bear, Darnell Nurse, Caleb Jones, Yamamoto and others will play a factor.

On the trade side of things, much of that will depend on the salary cap for next season. Right now, the projected jump in cap doesn’t seem feasible with the pause on the season. If things stay flat, there might not be many takers for Neal’s deal.

In the end, there are worse things than having a slightly overpaid 20-goal scorer on your team. This is more about moving Neal if the opportunity arises.

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