Everybody goes through slumps. Even the very best players in the world. We can forgive someone for going through a slump. Milan Lucic went 29 games without a goal this year. Come on though, no goals in over a third of an NHL season?? He only had 1 assist in the 18 games prior to breaking his slump as well… the same amount as Talbot! It wasn’t just the lack of production that was plaguing Lucic. He was making poor decisions with the puck. He was making blind passes into the middle of the ice. They were tape to tape in a lot of cases, but they were also to guys that weren’t wearing Oilers jerseys. He was fumbling the puck when trying to stick handle consistently. These problems were evident in watching Lucic play last season as well.
If he weren’t Milan Lucic and if he weren’t being paid $6 million per season, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal… but he is Milan Lucic, and he is getting paid $6 million per season, so it is a big deal. That level of play simply isn’t good enough for $6 million. Oilers fans are lamenting the 7 year, $42 million contract that Lucic signed on July 1, 2016. So, that begs the question of what to do with him now.
CapFriendly.com is a great website with great information on contracts and team salary caps for nerdy fans like myself. They even have a handy buy-out calculator that tells you how much it would cost to buy-out certain players! I took the liberty of inputting Lucic’s name into the buy-out calculator. The first piece of bad news is that since there are 5 years left on his contract, buying him out would leave him on the books for 10 years. Here’s more of the bad news… the following are the cap hits for each of those 10 seasons:
2018-19: $3.23 million
2019-20: $3.73 million
2020-21: $5.73 million
2021-22: $4.23 million
2022-23: $5.73 million
2023-28: $0.73 million/season
Buying him out would be absolutely moronic! Especially in those seasons where the team would save $0.27 million in cap space. There’s more bad news… even if it wasn’t totally stupid to buy him out, Milan Lucic has a no-movement clause in his contract. In order to be bought out, the player has to clear waivers. The NMC states that the player can’t be put on waivers without his consent (capfriendly.com). Therefore, Lucic can’t possibly be bought out. He also can’t be buried in the AHL because he would have to clear waivers to have that happen as well. His NMC also means that he can’t be traded without his consent. In other words, the Oilers are stuck with Lucic.
A study done by UBC in 2014 revealed that forwards peak between the ages of 27 and 28 years old (https://news.ubc.ca/2014/05/15/nhl-study/). That same study also notes that players tend to perform to close to their peak levels for periods before and after their true peaks, with that time frame estimated to be 24-32 years of age. In Lucic’s prime years to date, Lucic has averaged 0.61 points per game. His worst mark in that time was 0.54 points per game. At 29 years old, he is on the downward portion of the bell curve that represents his prime years. A slight decline in points is to be expected at his age, but this season’s mark of 0.44 points per game through 72 games is a dramatic drop in his performance.
If the study holds true, Lucic should continue to attain close to 0.61 points per game for the next 3 years. However, there are two things working against Lucic. He achieved his career-high 0.78 points per game (62 points in 79 games) in his 22 year old season. He reached his peak very early in his career, which would suggest that his decline should be starting sooner than the average player’s might. Also, Lucic is a big man, and speed is becoming a much more important factor in the current NHL. Based on his early peak and his lack of elite speed, I would anticipate his production to be slightly closer to this season’s disastrous low of 0.44 points per game than his prime years’ average of 0.61 points per game. A reasonable expectation going forward for Lucic in my estimation would be approximately 0.52 points per game, which would be 43 points per season. $6 million is a lot for 43 points.
At this point, signing Lucic to such a big contract seems like a mistake from Chiarelli. Lucic was signed a few days after Taylor Hall was traded, so there was a hole that needed to be filled at left wing on the top line. Considering that Lucic played under Chiarelli in Boston, and Chiarelli’s goal at the time was to make the Oilers bigger and meaner, it seemed like a pretty safe risk to take. That’s the thing about big name free agents: they are risks. Players typically become unrestricted free agents at 27 or 28 years old, which is the average peak of a player’s production. That first contract that they sign as an unrestricted free agent is their chance to cash in on all that they accomplished in their careers while rising to their peak. These players are always expensive. Teams sign big name unrestricted free agents knowing that their numbers will diminish at some point during the term of the contract. The risk is in how long it will take for that to happen. Chiarelli certainly wasn’t expecting that it would happen in year 2 of the deal. At this point, the risk hasn’t paid off for Chiarelli and the Oilers.
It isn’t all doom and gloom with Lucic. The cap is going up, and player’s salaries will rise along with it. He will have 2 years left on his contract when his prime years are finished at the end of his 32 year old season. Coincidentally, that will be the point when his NMC will expire, and he will have to submit a list of 8 teams that he would be willing to be traded to (capfriendly.com). The Lucic contract isn’t great, but it’s not as bad as everyone thinks it is because the Oilers can trade him once his prime years are finished if he continues to under-perform to the extent that he has this season. The signing will not go down as Chiarelli’s best move, but there was method to his madness.
I will give Lucic credit because it has been documented that he had been trying anything and everything in an effort to get out of his slump. He also said that he will improve his training in an effort to become faster in advance of next season. In the third period of the Oilers’ recent game in San Jose, he was trying to get the team going with a pep talk during a TV timeout. This was after a shift where he hit the post on a wide-open net, then had a shot deflect off of his stick and into his own net. That is a sign that there is leadership happening, which is an important thing. The other piece of good news regarding Lucic is that in the season after he averaged 0.54 points per game, he rebounded nicely the next year by scoring 0.68 points per game. Oilers fans will just have to hope that he can have a similar rebound next season!