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|
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.
Lucic and Neal's 5v5 pts/60 last 5 seasons: pic.twitter.com/OmMfi3c0Dx
— Woodguy (@Woodguy55) July 20, 2019
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.