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.
James Neal with some great hand-eye and a perfect snipe pic.twitter.com/CVZXMrxBnY— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) May 31, 2018
James Neal, the man who coined the nickname ``Golden Misfits'', opens the scoring with a laser to the top shelf. Vegas 11-1 in the playoffs when scoring first— Pierre LeBrun (@PierreVLeBrun) May 31, 2018
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.