The debate over which team won the Milan Lucic/James Neal trade has long been decided. However, the effects of that infamous deal still affects both teams involved, some of which are more positive than others.
The Edmonton Oilers are still paying both Neal and Lucic to not play for them this season, and while Lucic comes off the Flames’ cap at the end of this season, the Oilers are still saddled with an almost $2M dead cap hit due to Neal’s buyout in 2023–24.
Meanwhile, Lucic has become a fixture on the Flames’ second line alongside star forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Nazem Kadri, has points in three straight games, and is on a 15-goal pace this season. Not bad at all for the 34-year-old veteran.
That being said, Lucic’s recent success on that line is a dangerous double-edged sword for the Flames.
Lucic’s current production
It’s great to see Lucic producing again and especially scoring goals, but his inclusion on a top line is a 6’3″, 231-pound reminder that the Flames are missing a winger in their top-nine. Obviously, it’s better that Lucic is producing than if he wasn’t, but with his counting stats showing up on the scoresheet every night, it perpetuates this issue.
The Huberdeau-Kadri-Lucic line has not preformed very well in terms of underlying numbers this season—which some might scoff at as they’re still scoring— but the fact of the matter is that this indicates a low likelihood that this line continues to put up the same results over the long-term. The stats below are the line’s 5v5 numbers, from NaturalStatTrick.com.
It’s clear to see that the line may be shooting the puck towards the opponent’s net more often than not, but they give up significantly more grade-A opportunities. Right now, they are boosted by a nice goals-for percentage, but with an on-ice shooting percentage of 14.75—the highest on the team—this is bound to regress at some point.
The biggest issue with this line producing right now is that it’s not enough for the Flames to win, and it’s blocking the coaching staff and management from making a much needed move. With Lucic showing up on the box score, players like Jakob Pelletier, Dillon Dube, and even Adam Ruzicka are being denied a chance to show what they can do with the Flames’ two best players.
Lucic finding some magic in his twilight years is proving to be both good and bad for the team overall. As much fun as it is to see him clicking with Huberdeau and Kadri, a change needs to be made for the Flames to realize their true potential. Unfortunately, the better Lucic performs, the further he kicks that can down the road, and the less urgency is placed on finding a real fit on that line.
Readying for painful regression
Sooner or later the percentages will even out; they always do. And when that happens, hopefully the Flames can find the next spark plug to insert into the top-six. If they don’t, it’s going to get really ugly, really fast.
Last season, prior to Brad Treliving going out and acquiring Tyler Toffoli from the Montreal Canadiens, he said that the players had done their job and it was time for him to do his. Well, this season it’s the exact opposite. Treliving did his job to keep the Flames competitive, and now it’s up to the players and the coach to do their jobs.
The lineup is far from optimized, and the longer this experiment with Lucic continues, the less time there is to make a necessary long-term change.
Right now, things are just fine. The Flames have points in 16 of their last 21 games, and are holding down a playoff spot in the very weak Western Conference. But just imagine where they could be if Huberdeau and Kadri had a more skilled winger to play with?
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