After the Edmonton Oilers placed James Neal on waivers for the purpose of a buyout yesterday morning, it is abundantly clear now that the Calgary Flames won the Neal/Milan Lucic trade, and it’s not close. Oilers fans won’t agree with this, but they’re wrong. Here’s why.
On-ice production comparison
Credit where credit is due, Neal did a great job for the Oilers in his first season there in the 2019–20 campaign. With 19 goals, he definitely lived up to expectations, contributed nicely on the power play, and did what he was supposed to do in scoring goals. His underlying numbers were pretty terrible and Lucic’s were much better, but at the end of the day, the Oilers got the scoring winger they wanted.
For half a season.
All 19 of Neal’s goals that season came before the calendar turned to 2020. He scored exactly zero goals and just four points in the final 13 games of the season. He did score another two goals in the play-in round, but the Oilers lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in four games and failed to advance to the playoffs. For a player who was supposed to help vault the Oilers into legitimate contender status, it’s safe to say that was a failure.
Since January 1, 2020, Neal’s production grinded to a halt. Over that period of time, Neal played in just 42 games for the Oilers, scoring a measly five goals and 14 points. His ice time dropped to approximately 13 minutes a night as well.
To be as fair as possible to Neal, we’ll take his entire body of work with the Oilers with no caveats attached:
Now Lucic. Of course, Lucic wasn’t brought into Calgary to be a goal scoring top-six winger. His role was a bottom-six checker and leadership guy. Any offense was bonus, and that was known right off the bat. However, Lucic exceeded those expectations and became decently productive for his role with the Flames.
Not only was Lucic more durable for the Flames, playing 124 games over the past two seasons compared to Neal’s 84, Lucic put up more assists, points, hits, and blocks. Yes, Lucic had many more games to hit these totals, but even prorated, he’s not bad at all.
Here are Lucic’s regular season stats as a Flame, also with no caveats attached:
Add in the fact that Lucic outperformed Neal in almost every way in playoff stats and you’ve got yourself a real argument between the two players. In 10 playoff games for Calgary, Lucic scored one goal and six points, and dished out 30 hits along the way.
Flames fans will argue that Lucic actually finished ahead of Neal in terms of production, and Oilers fans will argue the opposite. In reality, it’s closer to a tie.
Advanced stats comparison
Neal and Lucic had very different on-ice impacts over their stints in Edmonton and Calgary respectively. Almost across the board, Lucic smacks Neal in every advanced statistic. All stats from NaturalStatTrick.com.
Lucic was above the 50% mark in all possession metrics, corsi, scoring chances, and high-danger chances. He was also in the black for expected goals, finishing at just over 52% in the regular season for Calgary. Neal on the other hand, did not exceed the 50% mark in any of these categories. He was underwater in terms of corsi, and was breakeven for scoring chances and high-danger chances. The most concerning part of Neal’s results is that he was well below the breakeven mark in expected goals.
Even looking a the more basic stat of on-ice goals for percentage, Oilers opponents scored more goals than the Oilers did when Neal was on the ice. Lucic was basically breakeven.
What makes these splits even more incredible for Lucic is the disparity in deployment. Neal started almost 73% of his shifts in the offensive zone compared to around 52% for Lucic. Neal was put in a position to generate chances and goals almost every single shift, whereas Lucic was asked to start in the defensive or neutral zone half of the time and transition the puck up the ice instead.
There’s not much to argue here, Lucic is the clear winner when looking at underlyings and overall on-ice impact at 5v5.
This doesn’t need to be a big discussion because the swing is fairly common knowledge. Neal is a one-dimensional player. He is (was) a goal scorer who provided value at even strength but mostly on the power play. That was definitely the case in the first half of the 2019–20 season, but hasn’t been since the calendar flipped to 2020.
Lucic provides much more in terms of hits, blocks, and fights for the Flames. Even if we call locker room contributions a wash since we don’t actually know what goes on behind those doors, Lucic takes the win here, no questions asked.
The draft pick
The Edmonton third-round pick was dealt to the Kings for two picks. As a result, Cameron Whynot and Jack Beck are Calgary Flames. Time will tell whether these players will make an impact on the NHL roster, but at the very least, it’s two additional assets the Flames have and the Oilers don’t directly because of this trade.
Assets are assets. Win for the Flames.
Salary cap implications
This is where it gets really fun.
Lucic—a useful roster player for the Flames who is used in all situations to some extent—is overpaid. That much is certain and I’m sure Lucic himself would admit that based on his role now versus what it was when he signed his big contract in Edmonton. However, the point remains: Lucic is a useful roster player who is used in all situations. He’s still a contributing member of the team, something that cannot be said about Neal.
Now that the Neal buyout is confirmed, this is how each player will impact each team’s salary cap for the next four seasons.
The Flames will have a cap hit related to the Neal/Lucic trade for the next two seasons, whereas the Oilers will see the effects of the trade for the next four seasons. The Flames are paying more in the first two seasons and the Oilers are paying more in the last two seasons.
Undoubtedly, the best part of the swap was the Oilers retaining salary on Lucic. For as long as Lucic is playing for the Flames, the Oilers will be paying him to play for their number one rival. But, the best way to look at this breakdown is by the difference in payments made by each club.
Essentially, the Flames have just one contract to deal with (Lucic’s), whereas the Oilers are paying both Lucic and Neal to not play for them. The overall result is the Flames paying an additional ~$2.5M. And, in two years, the Flames will be done with both of these players. The Oilers won’t be done for another four years and will see about ~2M in cap space disappear because of it.
Knowing that each team is paying at least $2.67M, consider this the price of signing bad deals in free agency. The difference is $2.5M for the Flames.
Paying $2.5M to have Lucic instead of Neal is pretty fantastic value, and an excellent job by Brad Treliving to salvage what was a very bad free agent deal made with Neal.
It’s impossible to argue this in favour of the Oilers. The Flames are the clear winners here, and it’s not even remotely close.
It’s clear the Flames are the winners of this trade. If any Oilers fan tries to make a case the other way, link them to this article and smile knowing you’ve won that argument.
Here’s to another two years of Looch in a Flames jersey, and both Neal and Lucic getting paid by the Oilers to play for other teams.