NHL Trade Analysis: James Neal Traded for Milan Lucic
Calgary Flames could still move James Neal at some point
© Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

The James Neal for Milan Lucic trade illustrated one thing. Friday afternoons in the dead of summer can get busy after all. This is what makes the summer exciting sometimes. Let’s dig in.

What Milan Lucic means for the Calgary Flames

Alas, Lucic can still provide a physical element which is vital for fourth lines in the NHL. For $6 million AAV, that is costly but there are other aspects of his game that could be unearthed again. Lucic gives a net-front presence on the man advantage. If one does not use him on the top unit, at least he can be mixed in on the second unit.

The Edmonton Oilers used him early in his tenure there on the man advantage and then less and less until he just became a bottom-six plug. As his production and chances dipped, his play further declined. 20 points in 79 games are ghastly. Consider that Lucic had several years left on his deal and Edmonton was likely glad to trade him. However, Bill Peters and Calgary could employ him a few different ways.

Again, let Lucic play in front of the net. His foot speed was never that great, to begin with. Maybe that helps him get his shooting percentage back up to double digits at least. At the minimum, he generates chances that seemed to be nonexistent last season in Edmonton.

His 45% offensive zone deployment rate has to go up closer to 55% for him to be remotely effective. If Bill Peters does that, Lucic becomes a serviceable player again. Is that worth $6 million? Probably not. However, at least, it’s a start.

What James Neal means for the Edmonton Oilers

The Oilers needed offensive players and Neal is one when his game is on. How bad is it when a player who scored 20+ goals in seven straight seasons falls off a cliff? Neal scored seven times in 63 games on 141 shots (5%). The closest slump Neal ever endured like this was after he was traded to Pittsburgh from Dallas in 2011. Neal scored just once on 52 shots then.

That next year, Neal bounced back with 40 goals playing with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the power play early and often. Simply, pair Neal with Connor McDavid and see what happens. Offense begets offense and thought some parts of Neal’s game have regressed, they couldn’t have that drastically.

Like Milan Lucic, Neal fell out of favor in Calgary and his ice time dropped by several minutes. Once that happened, the winger’s game deteriorated further.

Dave Tippett now will have to find that balance with the forward. If he can, Neal can return to at least the 20-20 player he was in Vegas and even Nashville. It is expected that Neal can play on the top-unit power play to start and maybe a top-six role early with Edmonton.

The numerology of James Neal and Milan Lucic

Looking back at last year for both players resembles a B-movie horror flick. Bill Comeau’s visualizations here are graphic. You have been warned.

James Neal


James Neal
Bill Comeau’s SKATR VIZ of James Neal from the 2018-19 season.

The warning was clear that Neal’s season with Bill Peters was ugly and the above shows the black and white, err red/orange of it all. From possession to minutes to competition, Neal sees redder marks than a grammar school kid who wrote a bad essay. Interestingly, shot attempts were still mostly solid for the winger which offers some hope at least.

Consider that the two previous years, Neal’s game score was 76 and 73 respectively. Last year, it was 35. That is an unusual drop.

Milan Lucic
Milan Lucic
Milan Lucic’s Game Score and more from Bill Comeau’s SKATR VIZ — 2018-19 season

As for Lucic, his drop started a few seasons ago. In 2016-17, Lucic had a game score of 50. Then it dipped to 45 then 25 last year. The one aspect of his game that dropped off the table this year was his underlying numbers. All that red and orange represents below-average numbers. His penalty differential was fourth-worst in the league. Goals and assists were that of a fringe fourth-line player.

His was a dip one could see gradually. However, there are some redeeming parts to Lucic’s game as well. Again, this involves getting Lucic back to what he does best and less of what he does poorly. Can Bill Peters utilize him effectively? That may be a question mark according to some.

The blueprint again is to use him in front of the net in man-advantage situations. After that, it is a question of mixing and matching his minutes at even strength. A third line and power play scenario playing out would not be surprising. Will Lucic ever see 45-50 points again? No. Should he be a 20 point player at this stage? Probably not.

The quirky condition of the James Neal-Milan Lucic trade

This is where it gets crazy. The $600,000 salary retention by Edmonton is not uncommon. However, there is this.

So, basically, Neal had scored 21 or more goals in seven straight campaigns before last year and Lucic tallied ten and six goals respectively the previous two seasons. This could become a fun thing to watch late in the season. Either way, if you are Edmonton, one does not mind this happening honestly.

Who wins this trade? That answer is unknown pending how these players are used. It would appear on the surface that Dave Tippett will utilize James Neal better. Neal played for Tippett in his early days in Dallas. Edmonton, on the surface, possesses the better forward but time will tell.