The REAL DEAL

Ken Holland deserves a free meal in recognition of the REAL DEAL because getting James “the Real Deal” Neal in exchange for Lucic is a complete steal!

It’s not a dream… the deal is real!

The Oilers will be retaining $750,000 of Lucic’s salary, and there is a conditional 3rd round pick involved. As per Mark Spector, the Oilers will send the Flames a 3rd round pick in 2020 if Neal scores 21 or more goals and if he betters Lucic’s goal total by more than 10 goals next season. Still, this is a steal for the Oilers!

Both players are currently 31 years of age, although Neal will be 32 by the time opening night rolls around. Both players are signed for the next 4 seasons. Aside from the $250,000 difference in their cap hits, the big difference between their contracts is the buyout structure. It is too late for either player to be bought out this summer, so I’ll just look at the impact from 2020-21 forward. Once the retained salary from the trade is accounted for, CapFriendly says that Lucic’s cap hit for the Flames after a buyout next summer would be $4,921,875 in 2020-21, $3,609,375 in 2021-22, $4,921,875 in 2022-23, and $546,875 for each season through 2025-26. In case you’re wondering, yes, Edmonton would be stuck with 12.5% of what it would’ve costed the Oilers to buy Lucic out if Calgary were to buy him out. Neal’s cap hit after a buyout next summer would be $1,916,667 for every year through 2025-26. Neal’s buyout structure is far more palatable than Lucic’s, which is a big reason why the Oilers retained salary and included a conditional pick in this trade.

Lucic had 20 points in 79 games last season, while Neal had 19 points in 63 games last season with the Flames. Neal was marginally more productive than Lucic last season, which is another reason why the Oilers had to retain salary and include the conditional pick.

No matter what way you slice it, the Oilers appear to have finally won a trade!

Let’s start with what the Oilers are losing here. I remember the dog days of the Decade of Darkness when the Oilers were heavily criticized for being too small of a team in a heavy division (yes, I see what I did there). Many Oilers fans dreamed of having big bad Milan Lucic on the team because he would hit guys and fight and score lots of goals.

I was not one of those fans. Hitting in itself is not an indicator of offensive success, as we all witnessed during Lucic’s time in Edmonton. I will admit to being excited about Lucic’s arrival though because he was the biggest free agent available at that time, and having him choose to play in Edmonton was a hugely positive sign that the Oilers were finally heading in the right direction. We all know how THAT played out.

Lucic is heralded as being one of the premier intimidators in the game today. I certainly wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley; but as a fan, I felt like he didn’t live up to that expectation consistently enough as an Oiler. He took on Mathieu Joseph last year when he was running around during their game in Tampa this past season, and he took on Mike Smith in the final Battle of Alberta in 2017-18; but those occasions were few and far between.

I would say that its fair to suggest that the Oilers got their money’s worth from Lucic in the first year of his contract in Edmonton. He got 50 points in that regular season, and then 6 more in 13 playoff games, including being in on the first two playoff goals at Rogers Place (he got an assist on the first one, and he scored the second one himself). He even played well in the first half of the 2017-18 season, where he got 26 of his 34 points before Christmas.

I don’t know what happened to him during that Christmas break, but he was never the same player again afterwards.

He only managed 8 points for the rest of that season. He didn’t fare any better last season, where he only got 20 points in 79 games. His hands deserted him, his hockey sense abandoned him, and his confidence simply eroded.

I know a lot of people out there will tell you that they knew Lucic’s decline would happen, but I think that any prediction of this type of rapid free fall would’ve been hyperbole in July of 2016. I think some regression should’ve been expected, but what Lucic experienced here was far beyond any reasonable expectation in my opinion. It’s really unfortunate for him and for the Oilers, but I certainly wish him well in Calgary.

The Oilers are getting a legitimate sniper in Neal. He had a disappointing season in Calgary last year to say the very least, but his body of work in his career shows that he can fill the net. Prior to last season, he had 10 consecutive seasons where he scored 20 or more goals. That includes a 40-goal season in Pittsburgh on Evgeni Malkin’s wing. The year after that, he scored 21 goals in 40 games (a 43-goal pace). They year after that, he scored on a 38-goal pace (27 in 59 games). His performance started to decline slightly in Nashville where he was counted on to be the leading man, but he did manage a 31-goal campaign there.

While his past accomplishments should be celebrated, we aren’t getting James Neal circa 2012; we’re getting soon to be 32-year old James Neal. A closer look at his more recent work is necessary here. In his last season in Nashville, he managed 23 goals and 41 points, which was a significant dip in his total production. Nashville left him exposed in the Vegas expansion draft in 2017, and the Golden Knights claimed him. He was once again thrust into a situation where was expected to be the leading man, but 44 points in 70 games (25 goals) isn’t elite production. Vegas let him walk in free agency because they did not want to commit big money and term to players on the wrong side of 30.

Then he signed in Calgary prior to last season, where he scored 7 goals and 19 points in 63 games. Kurt Leavins wrote that Neal didn’t come to training camp in peak physical condition last year because Vegas’s Cup run shortened his summer of training, and that he never caught up to everyone else physically last year. He also battled a lower body injury that saw him miss 14 games. Whatever the case was, Neal didn’t perform up to his capabilities. Hopefully training with Gary Roberts and Connor McDavid this summer remedies what ailed Neal.

Given last season’s disappointing results, his age, and the length of his contract, Oilers fans are right to be holding back some of their enthusiasm about Neal. It is fair to question whether or not Neal can regain his goal scoring form to be the 20-goal winger that Holland alluded to trading for while speaking after the opening of the free agency period.

Neal will be 32 years old when next season starts. Last season, there were 122 players that scored 20 or more goals in the NHL. 13 of those players were 32 or older (included is TJ Oshie, who turned 32 during the season).

It’s clear that the vast majority of the 20 goal scorers in the NHL are under the age of 32, but there is still a group of guys in their 30’s that can still produce. The common belief is that once a player hits his late 20’s, his production will automatically start to decline. I wanted to see if I could spot a trend in the goal totals in their 30’s for each of the 13 players in question. Here is the list of the 13 players 32 years old or older that scored 20+ goals last season and how many goals they have scored in each season of their 30’s (first season in the list is their 30-year old season). If a player played less than 74 games during a given season, I altered the total to reflect an 82-game pace:

Ovechkin: 50, 33, 49, 50
Pavelski: 37, 38, 29, 22, 38
Bergeron: 32, 21, 30, 32
Radulov: 18, 27, 39
Parise: 33, 25 (29 goal pace), 19 (23 goal pace), 15 (29 goal pace), 28
Oshie: 33 (40 goal pace), 18, 25 (30 goal pace)
Williams: 22, 11 (19 goal pace), 19, 18, 22, 24, 16, 23
Soderberg: 12, 6, 16, 23
Staal: 10 (13 goal pace), 3 (12 goal pace), 28, 42, 22
Brown: 11, 11, 14, 28, 22 (25 goal pace)
Malkin: 33 (44 goal pace), 42, 21 (25 goal pace)
Wheeler: 26, 23, 20
Krejci: 23, 17 (22 goal pace), 20

There are only 3 players here that have shown a consistent downward trend in goal scoring in each year of their 30’s. Those players are Evgeni Malkin (who is still playing at an incredibly high level), Blake Wheeler (who is playing the best hockey of his life despite his goal totals slightly declining), and David Krejci (the decline has been quite small and gradual).

The other 10 players on this list (76.9%) have all had down seasons at some point in their 30’s, only to bounce back and produce at a more normal rate. Hell, Alex Radulov has INCREASED his goal totals SIGNIFICANTLY in each year of his 30’s! Eric Staal went from 3 goals (12 goal pace) at age 31 to 28 goals at 32, and to 42 goals at 33! Dustin Brown went from scoring 14 goals at age 32 to scoring 28 goals at age 33. Massive increases like those are certainly not the norm for players in their early to mid-30’s, but they are definitely possible.

If this analysis reveals anything, it’s that goal scoring over time doesn’t always fit on a linear progression. If we were to take a large collection of data for all NHL players over the last 30 years, we would see a decline in the goal scoring of players as they get older, and it would follow a clear downward curve in a player’s 30’s. However, when you break it down and look at recent individual samples among elite scorers, you can see that there is variation in the numbers.

My point here is that just because James Neal only scored 7 goals last season, it doesn’t mean that he can’t score 20 goals or more in 2019-20. Neal has proven to be an elite goal scorer over the length of his career, and he belongs with the group of players that I mentioned in terms of pure scoring ability. A 20-goal performance is a very real possibility for Neal next season.

The other thing to note about Neal is that he had his best seasons alongside an elite talent in Malkin. The Oilers have two elite talents in McDavid and Draisaitl, and they have another damn good one in Nugent-Hopkins. He will get an opportunity to play with skill again in Edmonton! He didn’t get that chance with Nashville, Vegas, or Calgary. He was counted on to be the main guy in Nashville, and he went to Vegas with the same expectation; but he got some help from breakout stars like Karlsson and Marchessault. His time with Gaudreau and Monahan was incredibly limited in Calgary last season.

Playing with McDavid, Draisaitl, and/or Nugent-Hopkins does not mean that Neal will score 40 goals like he did with Malkin in Pittsburgh, but playing with Edmonton’s playmakers will certainly increase Neal’s odds of scoring 20+ goals in 2019-20.

I certainly can’t say that I have the same optimism about Lucic scoring 20+ goals in Calgary next season!

After all of that, here is a quick look at the updated roster and salary cap situation after the trade and the Josh Archibald signing. As always, contract figures come from CapFriendly. My final total will be different from what you will see on CapFriendly or PuckPedia because we all have different players on the 23-man roster.

Draisaitl ($8.5M) McDavid ($12.5M) Kassian ($1.95M)
Neal ($5.75M) Nuge ($6M) Chiasson ($2.15M)
Nygard ($925k) Granlund ($1.3M) Archibald ($1M)
Khaira ($1.2M) Haas ($925K) Gagner ($3.15M)
Cave ($675K) Brodziak ($1.15M)

Klefbom ($4,167,000) Larsson ($4,166,666)
Nurse ($3.2M) Russell ($4M)
Jones ($720k) Benning ($1.9M)
Persson ($1M)

Koskinen ($4.5M)
Smith ($2M)

Total: $72,828,666

Retained Salary: Lucic- $750,000
Buyouts: Pouliot – $1,333,333; Gryba – $300,000; Sekera – $2,500,000
Buried: Manning – $1,175,000
Total Cap Hit: $78,886,999
Cap Space: $2,613,001

That’s starting to look a little more like a hockey team!

The Real Deal did a couple of things for the roster. First, it gave the Oilers a winger that can score some goals and that won’t look entirely out of place in the top 6. That was a huge need. It is by no means a guarantee to succeed, but I like Neal’s odds of regaining his form and scoring at least 20 goals next season.

The other thing that the move did was open up a roster spot at LW in the bottom 6. Prior to the trade, Lucic was filling that 4LW spot. Khaira is a perfect fit for that role in my eyes; but Nygard is far from proven, and he could end up there as well. If Nygard doesn’t pan out as an NHLer, the roster spot could go to Jurco or a Bakersfield LW (Benson, Gambardella, or Russell). Regardless of who it ends up being, the 4LW spot will go to a young forward with speed instead of Lucic, and there won’t be $6 million being played 4th line minutes.

Neal is a left shot, but he can play either side as far as I’m aware. Should Tippett decide to use Neal at RW, there will be a top 6 LW spot open. In that scenario, it would be between Benson and Nygard as far as I’m concerned. That would be a big surprise out of training camp. Niether is a proven NHL talent yet, but let’s pretend it’s Benson for just a minute here. The second line could then be Benson – Nuge – Neal. Nuge is more of a playmaker, but he can finish as well. Neal is a pure sniper than has a bit of an edge to his game at times. Benson is a talented playmaker. How much fun would it be to watch that line?? I think that’s a line that Nuge could finally have some fun on.

That scenario would also mean having an established NHL RW (Kassian, Chiasson, Archibald, or Gagner) sitting in the stands. That was my weak segue to a note on the Archibald signing. Archibald is a nice little pick-up for Holland and the Oilers. He can get a team those important 10 goals at even strength, and he can contribute on the PK. He’s an excellent fit for Holland’s bottom 6 on a reasonable contract.

Holland wanted to build the bottom 6 group here. So far, he has chosen not to qualify Tobias Rieder and Ty Rattie. He has now moved Milan Lucic out. He has brought in Nygard, Haas, Granlund, Jurco, and now Archibald. I’d say that Holland has done a decent job of building the bottom 6 up with some speed and depth production.

Anyway, Archibald’s addition leaves the Oilers with 4 signed NHL RWs. I said “signed” because the Jesse Puljujarvi situation remains unsettled. Training camps in Europe are apparently quite close to starting, and Puljujarvi hasn’t signed a contract to play over there yet, which means that he isn’t very likely to sign one at this point. He’s waivers exempt now. If Holland wouldn’t trade him because he couldn’t find the right return, then he won’t risk losing Puljujarvi for nothing on waivers. The AHL is not an option for Puljujarvi.

Europe seems unlikely at this point, and the AHL is out… it’s looking like it’s the NHL or nothing for Puljuajrvi in 2019-20. This is of course merely speculation based on what I’ve seen and read, but I’m getting the feeling that Puljujarvi will be an Oiler in 2019-20. Holland has said that many players have told him that they wouldn’t play in Detroit, and they all ended up playing in Detroit (the most recent example being Andreas Athanasiou). I don’t think Puljujarvi will be any different.

If I’m right and Puljujarvi signs, then one of the 4 RW will likely get moved. It won’t be Archibald or Chiasson because they JUST signed contracts. It won’t be Kassian because his size and toughness are assets, and he showed that he can play with McDavid and Draisaitl last season.

That leaves Gagner.

If it’s Gagner, then a demotion to Bakersfield would seem to be the most likely move given that the player he was traded for last season will play in Europe this season (oh Ryan Spooner). He spent most of last season in the AHL, so his trade value will probably be low. However, he did get 13 points in 32 games with the Oilers and Canucks last year, which is a 33-point pace over 82 games. It’s not like he’s a bad player! If Puljujarvi signs though, Gagner would be the oldest and most expensive player in a group of RWs that will likely all yield similar point totals next season.

I’m rambling at this point. The moral of the story is that the REAL DEAL is a win for the Oilers! I’ll go on record as saying that Neal will get at least 20 goals next season and the Oilers will have to give up that conditional 3rd to Calgary. Book it!

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