Calgary Flames

Milan Lucic is playing much better than James Neal this season

It’s year two of Milan Lucic‘s stint with the Calgary Flames and things are going much differently this season than last.

One year ago, Oilers fans were walking around googly-eyed at how they came away with an absolute steal of a deal when they acquired James Neal from the Flames for Lucic and a third round pick. 2019-20 saw Lucic put up eight goals for the Flames whereas Neal had 19 over 55 games with the Oilers (that’s a 28 goal pace).

This season though, it’s been all Lucic, and Neal has been a paler ghost in Edmonton than he was in Calgary.

The Score sheet

No matter which way you cut it, points on the board are the hard stats that everyone will look at. It’s what drives player perception, how players earn their keep, and what set Neal apart from Lucic last season.

With just 20 combined games between the two players this season, there’s obviously lots of runway left, but here’s how their stats break down so far.

Milan Lucic1233616305011:34
James Neal82132090112:59

In almost every category, Lucic is ahead of Neal this season. He has more goals, more assists, twice as many points, significantly more hits and blocks, and plays just around 1.5 minutes less than Neal every night.

Neal does have one powerplay goal to Lucic’s zero, and has more shots on goals over fewer games played. However, Lucic has clearly been more impactful on the score sheet than Neal so far. On a line with Mikael Backlund and Andrew Mangiapane, Lucic has been an integral part of a dominant line and showed why he’s still an impactful NHL player the past few games.

Digging deeper

If we dig a little deeper into these two players’ numbers, it’s clear to see that Lucic has been playing much better than Neal, and has actually been driving a lot of offense for the Flames so far. Stats are at 5v5 from Natural Stat Trick.

Milan Lucic56.961.563.462.6
James Neal48.340.053.946.1

Lucic is having an absolutely incredible season. There’s no other way to say it. Out of all forwards in the NHL with at least 10 games played, his 56.9% CF mark is 32nd overall, and his 61.5% SCF is 20th overall. He’s generating a ton of scoring opportunities for the Flames and at a much higher clip than the team gives up when he’s on the ice. What is truly impressive is his 62.6% expected goals share is 24th overall in the NHL. That’s what you call making an impact.

Up the highway, it’s a very different story. Neal is under water in CF%, SCF% and xGF%. He does have a higher share of high danger chances which, to his credit, is a good stat to be over 50% in. However, the ratio is 14-12 which is basically breakeven. Expanding the criteria to include forwards with at least eight games played, Neal’s 46% expected goals share ranks 233rd in the NHL. Yikes.

TWC’s POET model backs this up well. Currently it includes all players with at least 50 5v5 minutes. Neal is only doing well shooting the puck, but really isn’t driving any possession or scoring. Lucic on the other hand, is driving possession and scoring well above what an average NHL forward does. His weakness is individual shots, but Backlund and Mangiapane are scoring the goals on that line, and Lucic is getting the assists. No problem there.

Who wins the trade?

In year one of the swap, it’s hard not to give the Oilers the W, even if Neal’s points came primarily on the powerplay and his underlyings weren’t as good as Lucic’s. 19 goals is 19 goals, and he made a positive impact on the Oilers’ season.

In year two, it’s hard not to give the W to the Flames, at least so far. Lucic is proving he’s not just better than Neal, but a legitimately serviceable NHL player who can effectively contribute in the bottom six. He’s been a revelation so far and if the Flames can continue to get this type of contribution from Lucic, they’ll easily come out the winners of the trade.

Even if you give one year to each team, the Flames have the edge due to them owning Edmonton’s third round pick in the 2021 draft, and the Oilers retaining $750,000 of Lucic’s salary.

The Flames are definitely turning the tide as the early winners of the big trade.

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