It’s safe to say the Oilers took a flyer on James Neal, but so far this season it’s paid off. The team must’ve hoped that the 32-year-old could regain his scoring ways, but with 19 goals and 12 assists so far this season, his return to form has been a pleasant surprise.
To talk about Neal’s first season with the Oilers, we have to talk about the trade that brought him to Edmonton.
On the surface, flipping the notorious Milan Lucic contract to the Flames for an equally hefty contract in Neal doesn’t seem to do much for the team, especially cap wise, but the trade for was actually a nice piece of work by Oilers GM Ken Holland.
Both players had pretty terrible stints with their old teams. Neal put up the worst offensive numbers of his career, and Lucic’s production had taken a nosedive in recent seasons as well. But while Lucic’s contract was heavily trade-protected, and had to agree to waive his no-trade clause for the deal to go through.
Neal, on the other hand has no such restrictions, meaning the Oilers have the possibility to ship him (how realistic that possibility is another matter.) To make the trade happen though, the Oilers did have to agree to retain 12.5% of Lucic’s contract.
As well, Neal’s deal is much more team friendly, despite his contract taking up 7.1% of the salary cap (Lucic’s is 7.4%.) Unlike Lucic, the Oilers can expose Neal to the expansion draft in 2021 (side note, has any player been selected in two expansion drafts before?) Cap space and flexibility are the most important part of building a team in the modern era, and for the Oilers this is especially true. It’s tough to tell if the Seattle would select Neal anyways, but the option offers a flexibility that Lucic’s contract just didn’t.
There were a couple of conditions on the trade. The Oilers have to send a 2020 third-round pick to the Flames if two conditions are met. The first is if Neal scored at least 21 goals in the 2019-20 season. The second is if Lucic scores 10 less goals than Neal. These conditions were extremely close to being met.
Neal scored 19 goals in 55 games this season for the Oilers, while Lucic put up 8 with the Flames. Seeing as the regular season has been officially declared done by the league, so the Oilers get to keep their third rounder for this year’s draft.
If the season had been to play out in its entirety, it’s almost guaranteed Neal would’ve hit the 20-goal mark for the 12th time in his career. Even the $5,750,000 cap hit doesn’t look terrible considering some contract comparables are players like Jordan Eberle, Patrick Hornquist and Alex Steen. Neal’s contract runs until 2022-23, when he’ll be 35.
If this season isn’t a one-off, and Neal can put up 20 goals over the next three years of his contract, then Holland is going to look like a genius. Acquiring capable depth scoring is difficult enough as if, but doing so while exorcising a seemingly unmovable contract would be *chef’s kiss*.
That’s the best case scenario though. When you look at how Neal has managed to bounce back from last season, it gives reasons to think that the more likely scenario is that Neal will experience a normal decline in production caused by age.
Firstly, he’s shooting a ridiculous 17% this season, leaps and bounds ahead of his career average of 11.9%. He also scored 11 of his goals in the first 14 games of the season, and put away only 8 over the next 41 games, and hasn’t scored since December 31. Despite that, his 1.3 goals-per-60-minutes is his highest total since 2013-14.
Secondly, the Oilers played the winger on the first power play unit with Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom, where Neal scored 12 goals, second most on the team. That’s a lot of talent on the ice that can help Neal capitalize on scoring opportunities. Away from those four and at even-strength, Neal struggled to produce.
On the plus side, Neal remains a solid possession player. This season he had a 56.7% Corsi for in all situations, his highest since his last season with Nashville in 2016-17. The Oilers are aware of Neal’s strength, offense. He started over 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone, and his scoring came overwhelmingly on the power play.
Neal showed that he’s got some gas in the tank, and when he’s used effectively, he can be a dangerous scorer on the power play. Now the Oilers just have to see if this return to form can be maintained.