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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Can James Neal rebound in Edmonton?

The Oilers acquired James Neal for Milan Lucic and a conditional third-round draft pick a little over a week ago. The big coup is (mostly) getting out from Lucic’s albatross contract, but Neal has also been a solid scoring winger for a decade before falling off last season in Calgary. Did the Oilers acquire a useful player in return for Lucic, or just a similarly declining player with a similarly poor, but buyout-friendly, contract?

Neal was not good last season. He had career lows in many statistical categories: goals, assists, average time-on-ice, and shots. Is this just a down year or the end of the line for an aging scoring winger?

James Neal Most Common F TOI
Player TOI
Mark Jankowski 336:06
Sam Bennett 247:03
Mikael Backlund 158:55
Derek Ryan 146:12
Johnny Gaudreau 106:10
Austin Czarnik 105:34
Matthew Tkachuk 101:43
Sean Monahan 98:01
Andrew Mangiapane 73:34
Michael Frolik 65:52
Dillon Dube 59:55

Neal played up and down Calgary’s lineup but his most common linemates were Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett, followed by Mikael Backlund and Derek Ryan. He also had minutes with the Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau line.

Neal wasn’t a fit with Monahan and Gaudreau. He was a drag on shot attempts and goals, leaving him with mostly bottom-six players aside from time with Backlund and Matthew Tkachuk. Gaudreau and Monahan, like almost all of Calgary’s forwards, were much better without Neal.

Separating Neal’s TOI through Calgary’s four centers illustrates his Flames tenure. A bunch of minutes with Jankowski went okay in terms of shot attempts, but they got killed in goals. Same with Neal’s Ryan minutes.

Neal’s time with Backlund shows how good Mikael Backlund is. Backlund outscores teams 6-3 with Neal, and 51-33 without Neal.

Neal was a drag on every Flames center. It’s clear why Calgary was trying to move him, but it’s still surprising to see the Flames take such a toxic contract back even with salary retained and a conditional draft pick. Calgary likely feels Lucic can be a better a third- or fourth-line guy than Neal.

The hope is for whatever reason Calgary just wasn’t a fit for Neal.

Neal formed an effective line in Vegas’ inaugural season alongside Erik Haula and David Perron. That line played nearly 550 five-on-five minutes together and had positive shot and goal metrics.

In 2016-17, Neal meshed well with Ryan Johansen and also with Calle Jarnkrok in Nashville

2018-19 stands out in Neal’s career. The bet Oilers are making is that’s Neal’s true ability wasn’t reflected in Calgary and he might recover beside Connor McDavid or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It’s a low-risk proposition because even if Neal remains in decline his contract is much more reasonable buyout than Lucic’s deal.

A return to previous scoring levels isn’t guaranteed for Neal. It’s reasonable to expect a bump in Neal’s goals and points at five-on-five, while still remaining a drag on possession. Lucic showed a similar drop in production in 2017-18, and at five-on-five in 2016-17, and never recovered. Neal might be on the same path, though his decline has been more severe and is a year older.

Neal can continue to decline and the trade would still be a win for Edmonton. Neal is a more reasonable bet to score in 2019-20, but all signs point to the Oilers buying out Neal in 2020 and the cap penalty for a Neal buyout is far better than any Lucic buyout or trade

Neal wasn’t going to produce in another season beside Jankowski and Bennett. Lucic won’t have the same expectations, and his cheaper ($500,000) cap hit than Neal helps put money towards Tkachuk’s extension. Calgary values Lucic’s toughness and intimidation factor. Meanwhile Neal gets a chance to prove he can still ride shotgun with talented centers.

Neal might be headed towards the same path, but it’s a worthwhile gamble for Ken Holland, who badly needs scoring wingers, while he opens up cap space for 2020 and beyond.

      • The future never comes

        I would respond with saying that with the little news we do have, maybe its a good time for certain writers to expand their creative parameters. If no new ideas are being presented then I would say why post, surely their are other articles that take more analysis then rewriting what 8 other writers wrote.

        • The future never comes

          Then we hear about the buyout proof versus non buyout contract conversation people write about in the comment section, like thats a new idea. Maybe it is if you have been living under a rock for 10 days.

      • Gravis82

        do some analytics, hire a guy, piss people off with the words corsi and fenwick. Comment sections will be glorious. Filter bots working at max capacity. All will be right in the world again.

    • The Iggy complex

      Haha solid bet. You obviously didn’t watch him at all. Slow, no hands, no got an anchor in every way.

      Closest Oilers have come to an even trade in many years. That’s why there had been app many articles trying to justify it

      • Dallas Eakins Hair

        LMAO Your still here whining about Neal. Hoo boy. Same thing when Nyquist chose to not sign with the Lamers, you were here whining away. Lucic hit the cliff here after his first season, he just couldnt get anything done on the ice, even he admits that. If you think Neal is slow, wait until you see Lucic skate, and if you think Lucic will be all happy about paying on the 3rd or 4 h line, well you will see how that works out.

        You ought to go rah rah over at Value Village nation about how awesome Looch is and how this will push you to the cup…lololololol

      • The win in this trade was the Oilers don’t have to protect Neil and the Flames have to protect Lucic in the expansion draft next year. The Flames could still win this trade if they get the conditional pick

      • Shameless Plugger

        Even trade? Oh boy….I can’t wait for you to watch Lucic play. If you think Neal is useless, you’re in for a BIG surprise. You’re about to witness a whole new level of useless. Spare me the toughness angle. Lucic hasn’t played “tough” in the last two years. But keep telling yourself he’s the same Lucic as he was in Boston. That’s what we did and boy were we sorely mistaken.

  • DraiCup

    It’s up to Neal to take the opportunity and give his career a final boost. He should be motivated to give his all. Playing with McDavid at least on the PP will help.
    Barring no major injuries my reasonable bet is 15 goals or 30 points overall.

  • Fireball

    I think if Neal is going to have success it would be a line centred by RNH. Besides why mess with the one line that was working last year. As pointed out the lines Neal has had success on over the last few years haven’t been with very fast players.. quick players but all lack high end speed by today’s standards.. certainly not in the Connor McDavid class. RNH is a affective but far from fast skater and has shown he can produce when paired with good players. I know there’s the argument Led Foot Marroon skated with McD but we will leave that at that. He seems to be having a hard time getting any sort of contract since leaving 3 years ago. I think Neal can rebound. The argument seems to be that because of his one bad season there’s a higher chance of him rebound which is fair or is just a larger faster fall from grace. He had one less point than Lucic last year, 170 less hits, and they were tied for playoff scoring even though Lucic wasn’t in the playoffs. ( heard a few shots on radio of people saying everyone keeps saying Neal had less points but they fail to point out played less games., Why yes he did …, also not as healthy last year or throughout his career as Lucic.. Good Point ! ) So it always will come back down to .., the best part of this trade maybe the buyout. I hope not. But I think there’s a saying about a handful of Hope in one hand something in the other 😂

    • Fireball

      Also Neal’s success in Pittsburgh was on the second line and first PP. one of the listed needs of the offseason was to find secondary scoring.., mainly a winger for RNH. Put all that together and seems like a match. They Can’t have their best defending both of the top lines.

  • huey

    So thankful the GM was able to do this deal! Imagine how much worse the dog days would be if we didn’t have this deal…looking forward to this season now… still can’t believe he got that deal done

  • Hemmercules

    Even if he doesn’t bounce back to previous levels it’s a win for the Oilers. Flames fans are quick to tell you how slow and useless Neal is going to be but getting rid of that contract is the true winner here (and you can’t get much slower than old Looch!).

    I think Lucic can help the Flames somewhat but aside from hits he doesn’t really bring a lot. I have a feeling he has that honeymoon period where he’s firing on all cylinders and creating things purely off adrenaline but that will fade and Flames fans aren’t any easier on players than the Oilers are.

    Im keeping my expectations in check for Neal too. Yes he has upside but he’s past 30, had a bad season last year and joining a new team isn’t always a seamless transition. Some guys just don’t work out for whatever reason. He seemed to fit in fine in all his other destinations before Calgary though which makes me wonder about the Shames. Hamilton was drove out and they couldn’t wait to get rid of Neal after handing him a hefty/lengthy contract and only giving him one season. I hope Neal can find come chemistry with one of the centers and roll with it for the season.

  • billsbills

    As Gregor already wrote, Neal has produced throughout his career regardless as to who he has played with every year, except last year in Calgary. When playing with elite players (Malkin), he put up elite numbers. When playing with adequate players, he’s a 21+ goal scorer. I’m not a fan of one dimensional players. It’s why I was fine with Eberle for Strome all though it should have included a 1st or 2nd round draft pick. But the Oilers desperately needed a top six forward.

    If Neal scores 20+ next season. He’s not getting bought out.

    • YFC Prez

      Just play him with nuge. Leave those 2 together on the second line and see what happens. He may stink like he did in Calgary or He may play like Neil the past decade prior to Calgary. None of us know. Either to oilers were gifted a second line scoring winger or they were just able to ditch Milan’s contract and that alone is a win.

  • Dallas Eakins Hair

    Well of course the Value Villagers lack of depth in the bottom six I am sure didn’t have anything to do with Neal’s failure to get anything going, not to mention much like Lucic Neal was up and down the line up with different guys. Honestly as I said, both teams are making a bet the guys they got will bounce back.

  • OilCan2

    Last year was an outlier for Neal. I must ask if it was injury related. It seems that he had deep playoff runs in the two seasons prior to joining the CowTown BurnOuts. That might also explain his big ticket,…..

    • Abagofpucks

      I have a theroy that Neal was a little banged up after his prior 2 years of cup runs and at his age that does run a player down. Then he signs a big contract with V.V, and kinda hits a wall with his conditioning and nagging injurys. This summer is his first real chance to heal up and recharge, now it’s about getting back to his training regiment and doing it with Conner in toronto.

      I’m just saying it could be a big difference and he could rebound into a reasonable facsimile of his former self.

    • TKO

      Neal was pissed off because he expected to play top 6 without ranting the spit and was beat out by Lindholm. It was well known what a pissy attitude he had, with rumors circulating about Mike Smith calling his BS in front of everyone between periods. Being healthy scratched for game five tells you where his attitude got him.
      As a Flames fan, I don’t care if he does good or bad in Edmonton. Good for you if he does. But he wasn’t doing anything at Calgary except being a cancer in the dressing room, and there was no way they could bring him back. Attitude is everything on a team sport like hockey
      Yes, Calgary took back the worst of the two contracts and all we can do is hope that there was an agreement about allowing himself to be exposed in the expansion draft.

  • FlamesFanOtherCity

    The only way Neal has a chance at rebounding is on the top line and top powerplay minutes. Expecting him to be a good fit with Nuge is fine, if you don’t need Nuge’s line to prevent goals against. In Vegas, he was on a secondary scoring line and managed to play against lesser defensive lines. The equivalent on the Oilers would be whomever the Oilers trot out for a 3rd line. Haas? Granlund? Nygaard? Gagner?

  • Serious Gord

    Short answer: Yes

    The chances he does better stats-wise? Over 80%.

    The better question is will he leave the oil in acrimony this season or some other season?

    IMO the answer to that is a shaky 80% iow I think it likely but there is not a lot historically to go on to support it.

  • KootenayDan

    Short answer: maybe, but I doubt it as both players are having the game pass them by they are too slow too old and have bad contracts there are no winners here except for the players where expectations will be lower and they still get paid. Time to leave this trade on the rails until we see what actually happens during the season tired of the endless articles.