Edmonton Oilers trade Milan Lucic to arch rival Calgary Flames for James Neal

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Remember that old saw about what happens when an irresistible force meets an unmovable object? As of today, my money is on the irresistible force, because it seems that even the most unmovable of objects can in fact, be moved.

I refer of course to the contract of Milan Lucic, a boat anchor pact on the Edmonton Oilers’ payroll that I came to call “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”:

  • lengthy term (7 years, 4 to go)
  • massive cap hit ($6 million per season)
  • onerous bonus structure that made it virtually buyout-proof
  • full No Movement Clause that made the player untradeable while technically forcing the Oilers to protect him in future expansion drafts, regardless of performance.

But word has come down today that those Four Horsemen have been spotted riding down the QE2 to Calgary.

According to team insider Bob Stauffer of Oilers Now the trade call has not been officially made with the league, and there may be secondary considerations involving draft picks and some salary cap retention. Those are likely to be relatively minor compared to the central deal — Milan Lucic for James Neal.

Lucic was a massive disappointment in Edmonton, with whom he signed a seven-year, $42 million contract in 2015. A year and a half after signing, his offensive production fell off the map and never recovered. As I wrote in his annual player review last month:

The dividing line is as stark as can be, right when the calendar turned to 2018.

    • Before: 121 GP, 32-44-76, +3
    • After: 122 GP, 7-21-28, -27

That’s not a trend, it’s a cliff.

RELATED: Ken Holland’s thorniest problem: what are the Oilers to do with Milan Lucic?

Obviously, Lucic has lifted the NMC to enable the move down the QE2.

RELATED: “A coup for Ken Holland” — Twitter reacts to Lucic trade

In Neal the Oilers get a 10-time 20-goal scorer who struggled to fit in in Calgary on the first year of a five-year deal at $5.75 million per. Critically, Neal has no performance bonuses or No Movement Clause associated with his pact.

Source: Cap Friendly

The difference in cap hit is just $250,000, but any sort of retention on the Oilers part is apt to level those scales or maybe more. From a cash perspective, the Oilers are accepting the more onerous pact with $23 million in real money outstanding on it, while Lucic is owed “just” $16 million after the recent payment of the $3 million signing bonus toward his 2019-20 campaign. Any salary retention on the Oilers’ part will serve to widen that disparity.

In moving on from the Lucic contract, the Oilers are seemingly no further ahead in term (still 2023) and cap hit, but the riddance of Lucic’s problematic bonus structure and no move clauses are gigantic considerations. No longer will the Oilers have to plan to protect Lucic in the impending Seattle expansion draft, as they would have been compelled to do. Moreover, Neal’s pact can be bought out (though not for a year) at a straight one-third of AAV times double the remaining term. Were he be to bought out next summer the cap hit would be $1.917 million times 6 years: a bitter pill, but one that would enable real cap savings of over $3.8 million in the immediate future.

Source: Cap Friendly

Ideally it doesn’t come to that, but instead the player recovers enough of his form to stick around.

In James Neal the Oilers have acquired a big winger (6’3, 212 lbs) who will turn 32 before training camp. A second-round draft choice of Dallas Stars back in 2005, Neal entered the NHL three years later at 21 and immediately embarked on a ten-year run of scoring 20+ goals per season. He topped out at 40 goals and 81 points with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12.

After spending roughly three years each in Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Nashville, Neal has bounced around in recent times, spending one year each in Las Vegas and Calgary before moving on. The Oilers will become his sixth NHL team.

In Calgary Neal was a major disappointment, crashing to just 7 goals and 19 points while struggling to find a role in the top six or first-unit powerplay. That’s right, the 10-time 20-goal scorer didn’t even manage 20 points, though it’s worth noting he played just 63 games, missing 17 in February and March with a lower body injury. Neal’s disappointing stay in Calgary ended badly when the player was healthy-scratched for the club’s final playoff game, when they were eliminated on home ice by the underdog Colorado Avalanche.

During the season his most common linemates were third-liners Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett. His underlying numbers suggest he was a relative drag on possession stats and goal shares. Of some concern is the fact he was credited with just 11 takeaways all season compared to 35 giveaways, this after having a positive ratio in those two (admittedly problematic) measures every year of his career prior to that. Whether that’s another sign of a serious performance drop-off or simply an offshoot of a good player struggling through a bad year is too soon to know but something to monitor.

In Edmonton, Neal will surely get a chance higher up the batting order, given the team’s dire lack of high-end wingers. There’s every reason to suspect he’ll get long looks beside one or more of Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.

The timing of the deal is interesting. As the Cult of Hockey‘s Kurt Leavins reported on July 7:

The next $3m bonus for Milan Lucic is payable July 17th. Some has reported that it was due July 1st which was not accurate. The Lucic cap hit and term are what they are. But if that bonus is already paid it is one less reason for another club to say “no thanks”.

Kurt himself acknowledged there was disagreement in some quarters about the date of that bonus, but the proof appears to be in the pudding: here we are on July 19th and Lucic just got traded.

While we await with bated breath the final details with respect to cap retention and/or conditional draft picks, today Ken Holland has resolved his “thorniest problem” and accomplished what some saw as impossible. Milan Lucic is an Edmonton Oiler no more.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

STAPLES: The top 10 reasons an NHL team should trade for Milan Lucic

McCURDY: Looking at Oilers depth defence prospects and their iffy record drafting from NCAA

STAPLES: Oilers make another small and sound move in signing Josh Archibald

LEAVINS: The Puljujarvi Conundrum (9 Things)

Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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