When players sign a big-ticket contract like Milan Lucic did with the Edmonton Oilers in July 2016, big expectations are part of the bargain. To understate, Lucic fell short of those expectations last season, a frustration-filled campaign that produced just 10-24-34, including a final 48 games in which he scored just one goal. The storylines this off-season have focused on whether he’ll even be back in Oilers’ silks in 2018-19.
Since June 7, there’s been no less than nine stories written on this website about the possibility of Lucic being traded, including several takes on what a deal might look like. There’s also been much talk about the possibility Lucic has asked for a trade or, at the very least, that both he and the Oilers are open to one. Agent Jerry Johansson has addressed that multiple times. From June 29 with Jim Matheson:
“Milan didn’t ask for a trade and Peter (Chiarelli) 100 per cent has not come to us about moving Milan. If he wants to get out from under the contract, he has to talk to us. What’s going on with Milan? Absolutely nothing. Milan had a bad year. The team had a bad year . . . He’s coming back to play for the Edmonton Oilers. That’s not exactly a fancy storyline but that’s what it is.”
IF THAT’S WHAT IT IS . . .
So, unless Johansson isn’t telling it straight or something has changed, let’s assume Lucic is coming back to start the third year of his seven-year, $42-million contract. The way I see it, it’s not a question of if Lucic will bounce back from the worst season of his NHL career after a second half to 2017-18 that was absolutely epic in ineptitude and frustration, it’s a matter of how much. Not just in terms of production, but overall impact.
By the numbers, the bar has been set extremely low. Lucic’s 34 points was his lowest total in his last seven full seasons (he had 27 in 46 games in the shortened 2012-12 campaign). His seven even-strength goals tied a career low (he also had seven as a rookie in 2007-08 and seven in 2012-13). Lucic’s shooting percentage last season finished up at 6.8 per cent. Even factoring in that number, he’s been a 13.7 per cent shooter or his career.
Beyond that, there were times last season when Lucic couldn’t even make or take a pass as his confidence waned. Often, Lucic looked a step behind. Even when he got there on time, he often didn’t do much when he arrived. His frustration was obvious. His overall level of engagement varied. Having turned 30 on June 7, it’s fair to ask whether Lucic simply struggled last season or if 2017-18 was the beginning of an inevitable decline. I don’t have that answer.
The way I see it, it could be a bit of both. I don’t expect to see Lucic go more than half a season with just one goal again. That said, it’s far from certain at this stage in his career that he’ll be a 50-point player again – a mark he’s reached five times, including a couple of 60-plus-point seasons – even if he comes in lighter and can find another half-step with the game getting quicker. Can Lucic be a top-six left winger again? The Oilers need one.
For me, the wildcard with Lucic is the mental aspect of the game. Can he park the futility and frustration he endured last season and come back determined to do whatever it takes to keep it in the rear-view mirror? Regardless of what Johansson said, it’s fair to ask if Lucic is happy here. Is there an underlying issue that we don’t know about? There’s been speculation about that, although we have nothing on the record from Lucic or the Oilers to suggest a problem.
The bottom line is my expectation is that Lucic will be better in 2018-19 than he was last season — I just can’t imagine he’ll be as bad again. I can see Lucic, without going out on too much of a limb, getting 40-45 points. Beyond next season, though, I’m not sure how or where things play out. When Lucic signed his seven-year deal, I thought it might be two years too long. The way I see it now, that’s likely the best the Oilers can hope for.
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