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Photo Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

UFA Profile: James Neal is the perfect fit the Oilers can’t afford

James Neal has always been discussed as somebody who would make a lot of sense on the Oilers. After he was selected by the Golden Knights in the expansion draft, Neal looked like a prime target for the Oilers to chase for their playoff run. Unfortunately, the tables flipped, the Oilers weren’t good enough for any deadline adds, and Vegas went on a playoff run of their own.

Neal is set to hit the open market this summer and he’s still an ideal fit next to Connor McDavid as the big, fast, scoring winger that the team currently lacks.

Who is James Neal?

James Neal is a well-travelled player who’s found success in every NHL situation he’s been thrown into.

He was drafted by the Dallas Stars in the second round of the 2005 draft and broke into the league three years later. He spent two-and-a-half seasons in Dallas and was then shipped to Pittsburgh in a puzzling deal that involved the Stars giving up Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. After three-and-a-half excellent years with the Penguins, he got shipped to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist, meaning he missed out on Pittsburgh’s back-to-back Stanley Cups. To make matters worse, he lost to his former club in the Cup Final while in Nashville. The Predators, after two years, left Neal exposed in the expansion draft and now he’s back in the Cup Final with an expansion team.

So that’s 10 NHL seasons, four different clubs, and two trips to the Stanley Cup Final. Perhaps the most impressive thing on Neal’s resume is the fact he’s scored at least 20 goals in each of his 10 NHL seasons. His best year came in 2011-12, his first full season with the Pens, in which he scored 40 goals. But Neal has consistently been able to score goals in any given situation at the NHL level.

Neal is that big, physical winger who skates well and can score goals. He’s the perfect fit next to Connor McDavid because he isn’t just a one-dimensional winger. He can crash the net, forecheck, and play a gritty style and score goals with skill.

Does he fit on the Oilers?

So there’s really no doubt that the fit makes sense in theory. But does it make sense in the real world?

Neal is going to be 31 years old at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. This is going to be his first time on the open market as he inked a six-year extension worth $5 million annually with the Penguins back in February 2012. After a 25-goal season with the Golden Knights and a solid showing in the playoffs, Neal is, as expected, going to be a highly-coveted free agent this summer.

As we’ve discussed in all of these free agent profiles (I’ve linked them below), the Oilers don’t have a hell of a lot of room to work with. It isn’t going to be easy for the team to add any big contracts as they have in the previous three off-seasons. The best comparable for Neal would be T.J. Oshie, a similar-ish scoring winger who inked an eight-year $5,750,000 deal to stick around with the Washington Capitals last summer. Neal seems like a prime candidate to get that Oshie-style deal that features a reduced cap hit and extended term.

The Oilers would have to ship out a contract if they’re going to make Neal fit into their salary cap picture, unfortunately. I talked about this when I wrote about John Carlson and Mike Green recently. While Carlson would be a great fit for the team, they simply can’t afford, at this point, to make another huge free agency splash. Instead, the Oilers would have to go for Mike Green, the similar-but-cheaper option. That’s the same deal with Neal. The Oilers are going to have to dive into the bargain bin and find someone who can be the cheaper version of what Neal accomplishes.

Previously…

UFA Profile: John Carlson

UFA Profile: James van Riemsdyk

UFA Profile: Mike Green 

  • A-Mc

    For Me: Neal is the perfect bait UFA. You want what he brings, he’s a really good match for the team. but once you buy him, you instantly have buyers remorse when you look at the financials of it all. Either someone would get wrongfully sacrificed to make it work, or we’ll be against the ropes cap wise.

    At this point, i dont understand why Vegas wouldn’t just sign him themselves. They’ve got the space and they’re already in possession of the player.

    • OEL-ERS

      James Neal is a pure player. He’s not gonna wear down like Lucic after the 1st year in his oiler made pension plan. He scores like a lowerish level kessel but can actually contribute to playoff style hockey. He’d be a great add.

      Right when Vegas acquired him and we still had some money from the “drai contract matching fund”, I knew he could have kept us and improved us to another playoff season. Especially after losing eberle for peaches.

      I know hindsight is twenty twenty, but when you can see it before it happens you really start to wonder what happens in the oilers conference rooms.

  • the dope $teez

    Don’t care what it costs – get James Neal.
    Where else are you going to get a crafty veteran goal scorer with big-game pedigree. The guy’s a winner, and unlike Lucic and Russell, is actually going to help your team win.

    • The Whispererer

      Don’t care ? So you would trade 1 of RNH, Nurse or Klefbom for a late 1st or a 2nd round pick to make room for Neal ? Remember, you can’t take any salaried player back in the trade since you are making a salary dump for Neal; that puts you in a weak negotiating position as well as limiting your market to only teams that have the cap room and the position need to trade with you.

    • Chaserr17

      You realize it was only 1 year ago Lucic did help our team win, right? and had just as high as a pedegree then Neal when he was a free agent…. your just bandwagan jumping and complaining to complain
      Things change every year.
      Players bust who you dont expect too, and others do much better then expected, with so many things affecting that ( many which people dont know about. )
      Lucic had a very bad season, it wont happen again. At least not nearly to that degree

      • the dope $teez

        Lucic had two brutal seasons in a row. His first season was just less bad because he played first unit PP and had a bunch of puck luck with pucks going off his ass, nose, foot etc.

        I’m still holding out hope Chia can find a way to get rid of Looch, Sekera and/or Russell. Wishful thinking I know.

        I complain because the Oilers suck. I will stop complaining when they are good.

      • OEL-ERS

        Sorry, i had to repost this for your comment.

        James Neal is a pure player. He’s not gonna wear down like Lucic after the 1st year in his oiler made pension plan. He scores like a lowerish level kessel but can actually contribute to playoff style hockey. He’d be a great add.

        Right when Vegas acquired him and we still had some money from the “drai contract matching fund”, I knew he could have kept us and improved us to another playoff season. Especially after losing eberle for peaches.

        I know hindsight is twenty twenty, but when you can see it before it happens you really start to wonder what happens in the oilers conference rooms

    • The Future Never Comes

      You don’t think a public enemy #1 like Lucic would wave at this point, when every move he makes is dissected on the ice? You don’t think he feels the almost torturous pressure from the fans? I would beg to differ.

        • The Future Never Comes

          Yeah people just repeat Omgsh NMC because the next guy does without deeper thought analysis. Think of the circumstances, he got his payday, he is virtually disliked by 90% of the fans at this point and is probably nervous to make any mistake on the ice or he’ll be ripped to shreds. And you think he would nix a trade to a warmer climate with a better shot at the cup? Okay bud.

  • IceMan11

    The question then would be…is there a “bargain bin” player out there who can “crash the net, forecheck, and play a gritty style and score goals with skill?”
    None that I can think of. Grabner is fast and can score goals, but doesn’t “crash the net” and you can forget the “gritty” and the “forecheck”.
    Can’t think of another winger who has all of Neal’s positives but is out there at a cheaper price.
    Don’t want Perron back, and I don’t think he’d come back.
    So….who fills the bill then?

    • OEL-ERS

      Man oh man, I liked Rikard Rakell when he was available. It’s somewhat satisfying making suggestions prior and those players proving me right.

      Can we set up a can on a string in Charambaliniowesvish’s office?!?!

  • crabman

    James Neal would have been a perfect trade deadline acquisition if we were loading up for a cup run. But at this point even if we had the cap space he wouldn’t be a fit on the Oilers on a longterm deal. We aren’t contending for the cup next year and Neal doesn’t fit the McDavid cluster and in a few years when the team should be in a better position to win Neal will more than likely be in his decline at 34+ years old. I love the player but don’t think he is a good FA target for the Oilers.

    • “in a few years when we’re in a better position to win”
      That’s what the most important part is. We’ll need a miracle to move Lucic before then, we don’t need another one added to the pile. We need the front office to clean and tidy up the books, we really can’t have boat anchors holding us back when the ship is at full speed. Inexpendable contracts for the sake of a cup run next year is an awesome way to waste McDavid and Draisaitl’s primes

      • crabman

        @Casey,

        I still hope Lucic can have a bit of a bounce back and score in the range of 40-45 points the next 2-3 years and at that point if he has slowed to the point he needs to be gone I am hoping for a compliance buyout or 2 negotiated into the next CBA. either the team or the league can opt out summer 2020 and either negotiate a new deal or have a work stoppage. I think that is when we see Lucic come off the books.

  • A-co

    It’s a good thing the oilers can’t afford him…he’s going to get 5+ seasons and The back half of this will be regrettable…already have a couple of those contracts

    • OEL-ERS

      5 years sounds about right. Would make him 36. Then after he would sign a possible 2 year contract.

      I honestly think he’s a smart enough player to contribute for the full 5. He chooses his spots carefully. Age doesn’t change that. May take a tad longer to get there though.

      Would definitely change the look of the power play. Making it so McDavid doesn’t have to do the same play for the whole season. He can also be a bit closer to the net which I think would be better as he can dangle in a phone booth.

      Would like to see lucid go. . But a small part of me feels like he is needed for another Stanley cup push. As long as he doesn’t drag as down from getting to the playoffs.

      I also don’t want sekera to go because i feel like he’ll be back to his normal self. Same with Klef. It’s strange how i like this team. Just would have been nice to get Lucic, Sekera, Nuge, and draisaitl all a mill cheaper.

  • Big Nuggets

    We need to quit pining for these older expensive UFAs. There are many winger who would work well with Connor that we can’t have. Another long term contract to a player over 30 is just an awful idea.

    • Arfguy

      @Big Nuggets

      Agreed. At this point, going for any UFA who is 29+ and would demand anything over $4 million AAV. The problem with the Oilers is that, they’ve been bad for so long due to drafting, that they think they cannot improve using the draft. That is actually the only right answer, given the cap situation. I would prefer that the Oilers management did not panic and make another terrible UFA signing. I’d prefer if they put more thought towards scouting and drafting and finding better solutions outside of what the NHL presents.

  • jcapss

    I’m not trying defend the guy but Lucic will bounce back. He has roughly an avg of 40 points per season for the last 8 years. Last year he got what 34? How many times did he hit the post or miss open nets etc. That doesn’t happen, different story. He had 50 points the year before, 55 in LA, and 44 the year before in Boston. I think it’s fairly reasonable to expect him to Atleast 40 points and be back to career avg. We brought him here for his presence, and while yes that was lost last year mainly cause his confidence went down the drain I fully expect him to ramp it. Theres no way he can be as terrible as he was last year. Also yes he throws the puck away way too much but I expect that to change if his confidence goes up. He’ll have a bounce back year even if his numbers just return to career avg thenill be happy with that. Gotta work with what you got. NMC sucks but it’s a reality

    • Big Nuggets

      Maybe the new coaches will help him get out of his funk. It would be amazing if Lucic rebounded and actually became a factor on the ice next season. I am hoping for a very modest bounce back from him. 30’s not old yet. Then again it looked like his hands completely calcified this last year. I hope he puts in work this offseason.

      I’m getting curious as to which centers Lucic spent the most time with back in Boston. Because playing with Krecji and Bergeron would make my numbers look pretty good. Not to sell Lucic short, he was a beast at one time.

    • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

      I wonder if the way the season went + the pregnancy of his wife co tributed to his cofidence drain. I believe he’ll bounce back and when he does

      ALL OF YOU HATERS WILL HAVE TO EAT IT

  • OilerForLife

    Nice to leave some cap space just in case things work out better than expected later on. Neal, if even available may have a price tag that puts us out of the running.

  • Easy pass. Giving a guy who’ll be 31 soon a 5yr+ contract? Imagine if Yamamoto plays just as good as Neal in 3 years but we can’t afford to keep him because of Neal and Lucic. A long term deal with a NMC for a veteran player is like a tatoo of your current girlfriend’s name; it seems nice at first but once things don’t work out you’re stuck with it forever. Giving Grabner or Vanek a 2-4 year deal would be much better, we’d atleast be able to see the light at the end. We need to bring in wingers who can play but we also need wingers who we can let go of when we need to, people always ignore the later.

  • OriginalPouzar

    We all know that the cap structure of the Oilers makes its imperative that we find value contracts to add over the next few years – players whose performance is greater than their cap hits.

    The place to find this is at top 6 winger – the league is now a young talented players’ league at forward – young players in the draft plus 1-3 years can now come in an produce offensively in the top 6 – they can do this on their ELCs and provide great value. This is what the Oilers need – young developing players being zoomed by 29 an 97 and producing in the top 6.

    There is a bit of a hole there for next year but fairly soon we should have our forward prospects ready to provide value in the top 6.

    We cannot commit cap space with term to aging wingers on UFA type contracts. Sure, it would be nice to grab an established winger for Drai (or McDavid) but, in the medium term it doesn’t make sense as we can save cap hit by using a younger developing player and spend our cap on the defence and middle/bottom 6/depth.

  • Danoilerfanincalgary

    Keep developing within and add more depth to the line up with less expensive veterans. James Neal has had a good career but what is left in the tank that is a risky venture. Back in the days when we didn’t know salaries everyone would love Looch hoping for a rebound instead of worrying about how it affects the cap. He helps make this team braver by his mere presence and keeps other teams honest nobody pushes this team around anymore. Hate to say it but I like a guy like Vanek probably cheap short term and talented would help the pp.

  • Total Points

    The situation with the Oilers is they are 2 different teams within the team, one when McDavid is on the ice and one where other forwards are on the ice. The Coaches have to recognize that and adjust the game plan on a Mcdavid shift versus a non McDavid shift.

    This would also determine which players they pursue

    • IRONman

      When do you want to win?

      2025?? Wake up. Nurse needs more money. Bear needs more money. Yamamoto needs more money. So when are you going to get the players to win. Lucic can go to Seattle, soon. He is obsolete

  • Arfguy

    I think James Neal is an ideal player for the Oilers, if they didn’t have someone like Milan Lucic. If Lucic could be gotten rid of, that would fix a lot of the problems for the Oilers.

    The Oilers will basically have to look for younger, cheaper options and hope they play better. At this point, they are better off looking at the KHL than the NHL.