When Milan Lucic signed a seven-year contract, most Flames fans started to eye roll at the fact that the team would have to frequently see one of the most physical forces in the NHL. Alongside Connor McDavid, it looked to be a match that would one day bring a Stanley Cup to the wrong Alberta city.
If you told someone at that time that Lucic would actually end up playing in more NHL games with the Flames than Oilers, most would call you crazy. Then that became a reality.
Arriving to the team in 2019, Lucic would suit up for 283 regular season games and 22 playoff games with the Flames. Most people would easily call Lucic’s time a complicated tenure with Calgary.
With the recent news that the team has granted Lucic and his representation to talk to other teams around the league about a new contract, it’s clear that the Calgary leg of Lucic’s career will end on July 1.
Despite the overall decline in his on-ice performance the last few years, I think as a whole Lucic’s tenure with the Flames should be looked back on with fondness. Before getting out your pitchforks, let’s dive into the details.
The Neal for Lucic trade
The James Neal for Milan Lucic swap is one of those moments that can be looked back on everyone in the hockey world would say “I remember where I was when I heard the news.” Trades between the Alberta rivals are rare, and this one was the biggest.
Lucic was signed to be a top line contributor in Edmonton and be a complementary piece to the team’s best players. Neal was signed to the exact same role.
It took Edmonton three seasons to realize Lucic wasn’t a fit, while the Flames just needed 63 to realize just how bad Neal was. That being said, Lucic had a strong first season with the team before being forced to play a more important role than what fit his game.
Neal, on the other hand, was just plain awful and spent more time complaining about his role on the team than producing for it.
From a pure culture fit, Lucic was leaps and bounds above Neal.
The Flames easily won this trade. Lucic was overpaid for his role, but they got him at a reduced salary, he played out his contract, and still produced for the team even this year. Even though the team ended up wasting the conditional third-round pick they got from the Oilers, it was far better than what happened up the highway.
Neal had one good season with Edmonton before being bought out by the team. They will still be paying him for the next two seasons, taking up valuable cap space on a team with Cup aspirations.
It wasn’t the steal of the century, but the Flames came out on top.
The start of Lucic’s Flames career is almost heartbreaking looking back at it. While Neal was scoring at a torrid pace, Lucic struggled to find a place in the lineup. The added pressure and lack of fit with former head coach Bill Peters led to him struggling hard for the first few seasons.
Luckily for Lucic, the world found out that Peters was an awful human, and his relationship with interim head coach Geoff Ward led to him slowly turning to the tides in the right direction.
One of the best moments from the 2019–20 season was Lucic scoring his first goal as a Flame. There wasn’t a single person that wasn’t rooting for Lucic to succeed that season, and the first goal was one of the most joyous moments to happen in the shortened season.
Lucic had countless beatdowns over opponents, celebrated his 1000th NHL game in a Calgary Flames uniform, and often found himself celebrating like a Tusken Raider from Tatooine. You also cannot forget one of the loudest cheers night-in and night-out at the Saddledome was “Loooooch” whenever he got the puck.
Not to mention his penchant for scoring five-hole in a way that one would think most goalies would catch onto—yet Lucic always found a way.
Despite his final year being a rough one—as it was for almost every Flames skater—Lucic provided a veteran presence and leadership to his team that not many others could provide. He was beloved by all his teammates and that is something that is hard to replace.
What Calgary meant to Lucic
Most will point out that the discussion up until this point have ignored Lucic’s day-to-day on-ice disadvantages. It’s important to clarify that Lucic was vastly overpaid for his role on the team, and took up a roster spot for younger players to take a shot at the NHL. It was frustrating at times—especially this season—and it looked to have reached a breaking point.
His contract was always going to be too expensive, but so too was Neal’s.
That being said, you almost get a massive sense of nostalgia when looking back now at Lucic’s tenure. It was a touching moment when he gave his end-of-season press conference:
Lucic was clearly emotional about how much the city, the fans, and the organization meant to him and just how much it was needed at that point in his career. He was vilified in Edmonton, but embraced in Calgary. He was forced into a role he didn’t fit with the Oilers, while the Flames just let Milan be Milan.
He wasn’t ever going to be the team’s top scorer, but he filled a role and did as the team asked of him. You can’t fault him for that.
Now there is always a chance that Lucic comes back to the team, but all indications point to that being a long shot. A reunion in Boston makes sense, or having his hometown Vancouver Canucks give him a ride into the sunset, but you can be sure that when he returns to the Saddledome the ovation will be loud.
It was a rollercoaster ride for #17, but all-in-all, it was at the very least a very fun ride.