When Ken Holland noted during his end-of-the-season media avail that he would be looking at buyouts this offseason, the immediate assumption was that James Neal would not be a part of the Edmonton Oilers roster next season. Neal struggled this season and his last two playoff appearances have now ended with him sitting in the press box watching as his team gets eliminated.
Neal wasn’t just a healthy scratch during a couple of playoff games this year, but he was a healthy scratch for much of the 2020-21 regular season. On and off the taxi squad, he was a veteran soldier that showed the odd glimpse he could provide some secondary scoring, but his salary is far too high to fall into a pattern of paying big bucks for little production until his contract expires. If Neal isn’t good for 15-20 goals per season, there’s no real fit for him on this current roster.
Most Insiders Believe Neal Is Gone
Former TSN hockey insider Frank Seravalli is one of many who suggest Neal is probably on his way out. Seravalli notes that buyout talks have been ongoing for months in the Oilers’ front office and that makes sense considering this offseason is the one Holland has been waiting for. He’s got some cap space in which to make sizeable changes to the roster and clearing another $3.8 million off the books is a logical step in his process.
The move would cost the Oilers $1.92 million for four seasons, with the team carrying some dead cap space until the end of the 2024-25 season, but it might be a necessary evil. It’s risky and the Oilers are just getting out of dead cap space trouble, but the trade-off seems to be freeing up money to obtain that top-six left-winger the Oilers desperately need.
Why Neal as a Buyout?
Considering he’s the most expensive option for the Oilers to buy out, why would Neal be the Oilers primary target here? I would assume it has a lot to do with the fact that his seasons are going to continue to regress, along with some injury concerns. Accompany that with the fact he offers the most flexibility to add an impact player and you get your answer.
The $1.92 million in dead space is not ideal. That said, in a flat cap salary marketplace, the $3.8 million that the Oilers get by removing Neal from the roster might be enough to land a player who could play alongside Connor McDavid. Neal is not that guy and trying to fit a square peg into a round hole doesn’t make sense if the Oilers are in win-now mode, which they are.
If viewed another way, the Oilers could be figurately trading Neal for as much as a $5.75 million winger, without actually sending Neal to another team. The first two seasons of this new winger’s contract is essentially a wash (Neal’s savings plus his dead cap space). The $1.92 million that’s left on the books in 2023-24 and 2024-25 is simply the cost of doing business and finding the ideal fit.
There are also ways to minify the pain of that dead space in a couple years.
Other Buyout Candidates
While Neal is the primary buyout target for the Oilers, there’s also a possibility that Kyle Turris is considered as well; as might be Mikko Koskinen. Some will argue that Koskinen is the guy Holland should focus on.
The problem with that theory comes when listening to what Holland has said about his netminders. We know he tried to add last summer and he’ll likely try to do so again, but Holland did suggest to Bob Stauffer of Oilers Now on Wednesday that he could envision a situation where Koskinen and Smith are back as a tandem.
If the right deal doesn’t present itself, Holland says the stats suggest the Oilers got good goaltending this past season and Koskinen has only one more season at $4.5 million. It’s not likely the GM tackles everything on his to-do list in one summer. If there’s one area that he might think can wait, perhaps it’s the goaltending.
That is, assuming of course, that Mike Smith comes back and at a reasonable number.
Jim Parsons is a senior THW freelance writer, part-time journalist and audio/video host who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes NHL news and rumors, while also writing features on the Edmonton Oilers. He’s been a trusted source for five-plus years at The Hockey Writers, but more than that, he’s on a mission to keep readers up to date with the latest NHL rumors and trade talk. Jim is a daily must for readers who want to be “in the know.”