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Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Trading Places

That general manager Ken Holland found a way to get out from under Milan Lucic’s contract at all back on July 19 in a trade with the Calgary Flames for James Neal prompted Edmonton Oilers’ fans to declare the swap a big win before the ink was even dry.

Given how mightily Lucic struggled during the back half of his 243 games with the Oilers, a tenure that produced 39-65-104 for a cap hit of $6 million a season as his skills seemed to erode before our eyes after his first season here, it’s difficult to argue with that perspective. Yes, the Oilers won the deal before the season even started.

“Get him out of here,” fans said. That’s what Holland did, making the deal to much fist-pumping by the Oilers’ faithful. Out went Lucic and in came Neal, a player who’d been a lock to score 20 goals a season before slumping to just seven with the Flames in 2018-19 — he never really found a fit with coach Bill Peters in Calgary.

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All these months and games later, we’ll get our first head-to-head look at the swap when the Flames come calling at Rogers Place Friday. After a torrid start, Neal has made the trade look even more one-sided than many Oilers’ fans thought it was – he’s on his way to another 20-goal season with 16-7-23 through 40 games. Lucic arrives with 3-5-8 in 37 games, putting him on about the pace he produced at in his final season with the Oilers.

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HEAD-TO-HEAD

Nov 8, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; The Edmonton Oilers celebrate a second period goal by forward James Neal (18) against the New Jersey Devils at Rogers Place.

It’s goofy scheduling to have the Oilers, 20-16-4 for 44 points, and the Flames, 19-15-5 for 43 points, meeting for the first time after the Christmas break. It’ll certainly make for some intrigue and a lot of back-and-forth between fans in both cities the rest of the way with the Lucic-Neal deal providing a juicy subplot.

Not having a dog in the fight and putting the contract shed by Holland aside, I wrote back in the July that this could be a win-win for both teams based on their on-ice needs. While even that’s a stretch given Neal’s early production, I’d like nothing more than to see the Flames and Oilers heat up the rest of the way and see Neal and Lucic play parts in that.

Let’s face it, The Battle of Alberta isn’t really a battle at all unless both the Oilers and the Flames are good and having at each other, especially in the playoffs like in the good old days. If Lucic comes in here Friday looking to run the Oilers’ show and prove a point or Neal puts a puck or two in the net in the first of five meetings to come between the teams, all the better.

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To hear Lucic tell it in an interview he did with Tim Campbell of NHL.com on Dec. 23, he’s certainly up for that. He also sounds like a player who has found a fit down the road after things went sideway for him with the Oilers. Whether you’re cheering for the outfit here or you’re a Flames’ backer down in Cowtown, I’m hoping this is a story that’s just getting started.

YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?

“It helps where both teams are in the standings,” Lucic said. “I think that ramps it up not just a little bit but ramps it up a lot. It’s not just me and James Neal. They’ve got Mike Smith and (Kris) Russell who used to be in Calgary . . . we’ve got (Tobias Rieder) and (Cam) Talbot that used to be in Edmonton, so there’s more to it than just me and Neal.

“I’ve seen what Battle of Alberta games are like in Edmonton. My first game opening up the new arena there was against Calgary, and there was a fun one (in Calgary last season) to be sure. So that’s going to make it more than just a game for Albertans to circle on their calendar. I think the whole NHL should be circling that one.”

As for his time in Edmonton and the greeting he expects Friday, Lucic said: “We’ll see. My first year, things went great. Not so great my last year and a half. But the one thing I have to say is that the fans were always good to me there. They never booed me. They always were good to me and appreciated me while I was there, even when I was struggling.

“I do want to say that about the fans. Maybe at the start (on Friday) they’ll do whatever they want and say whatever, but once you throw a few hits and there are some battles, you obviously become the enemy by nature.” For full context, the interview is here.

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THE BOTTOM LINE

Sep 16, 2019; Edmonton, Alberta, CAN; Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal (18) celebrates after a first period goal against the Winnipeg Jets at Rogers Place. Mandatory Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Starting Friday, both teams have some work to do if they’re going to stay in the Western Conference playoff race. The Oilers hit the break on a 3-6-1 skid and are 2-4-1 in their last seven home games. They’ve got the Flames and New York Rangers before packing for a five-game road swing. The Flames, a point back after 39 games, are pushing them in the Pacific Division.

That both teams will have a significant say in the playoff hopes of the other the rest of the way is the big storyline, but when the puck drops Friday, Lucic and Neal make for a pretty good sidebar in the middle of the mix. If you’re not into it already, you will be when Lucic sticks a glove in somebody’s face or Neal gets the puck on his stick in the slot. Have at it, men. Have at it.

Previously by Robin Brownlee