Early returns on Neal-Lucic swap exactly what Oilers, Flames hoped

Milan-Lucic

Calgary Flames' Milan Lucic, right, celebrates his goal with Austin Czarnik against the Edmonton Oilers during second period NHL pre-season hockey action in Calgary, Alta., on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

Milan Lucic might have been the last person in Alberta to hear about James Neal’s four-goal shocker Tuesday night.

After all, while Edmonton Oilers fans were busy texting every Calgary Flames fan they knew, declaring early victory in their summer swap, Lucic was pounding away on the face of six-foot-five Los Angeles Kings defender Kurtis MacDermid.

Neal’s night powered the Oilers to a win on Long Island.

Lucic’s fists turned a 3-0 deficit into an emotional comeback thwarted by Drew Doughty in overtime.

One thing has been clear since the Flames and Oilers swapped problems this summer ⁠— Neal and Lucic will forever be inextricably linked.

Both former 30-goal men carry onerous contracts for the next four years while battling the reality they are post-apex in their careers.

Both were massive disappointments in their respective cities where disengagement, foot speed and father time appeared to be their biggest opponents.

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The idea was that with new opportunity, could come new life, which is exactly what has come to fruition three games in.

One leads the NHL in goals (6); the other in penalty minutes (26) and fights (2).

Yes, it’s early.

But so far both have fit in exactly the way their new teams had hoped, leaving fans in their previous stops scratching their heads.

When told of Neal’s goal binge after Tuesday’s game, Lucic was quick to understand updates on one another’s comeback attempts will be ongoing, as one can’t be mentioned without thinking of the other.

“For sure, you’re not going to be able to get away from it,” said Lucic who, like Neal, has clearly embraced his new digs.

“I can’t focus on what other guys are doing on other teams or you drive yourself nuts. He’s a natural goal scorer and I do things more than scoring goals. But I’ve got to find a way to chip in sooner than later.”

Offensively, it’s not necessary.

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Flames fans would be content if Lucic repeated last season’s six-goal campaign, as long as he flexed his muscles regularly enough to ensure his Calgary cast feels insulated from the abuse opponents haven’t been afraid to inflict.

With two fighting majors against league heavyweights so far, his presence has been appreciated by teammates and Dome-dwellers who’ve welcomed the beefy North Vancouver native with “Looooooch” every time he’s on the ice.

“It’s good – obviously you appreciate it from the fans,” smiled Lucic, 31, who had just three fights last season in a city in which he was the whipping boy.

“You just have to keep it going on a night-to-night basis.”

Bingo.

Neal is using top-six minutes and prime real estate on the power play alongside Connor McDavid to regain his scoring touch, and Lucic is reinvigorated as a role player on a team that desperately needed his snarl.

Both teams craved having those roles filled, which was why the trade was a no-brainer from the start.

That doesn’t mean news of Neal’s four-spot didn’t feel like a Lucic gut punch to some Flames fans who may have taken a brief respite from reality and wondered if perhaps the team should have stuck with Neal.

Wrong.

Neal was never going to be successful in Calgary after the mail-it-in, seven-goal season he had last year.

Disengaged at best, Neal offered nothing to a team that outbid itself to hand him US$28.75 million.

He arrived in less than optimal shape and wasn’t popular in a dressing room where his stall was in the far corner for a reason.

Clearly upset he wasn’t given a top-line role with the Flames early on due to the instant success of Elias Lindholm alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, he was unable to chip in any other way.

He didn’t use his size to hit anyone, he was never involved in scrums and he was too slow to fit in on the Flames second line, which would have involved playing defence.

The depth in Calgary and his attitude made it crystal clear that as a one-dimensional player he was never going to work out in Cowtown.

The Flames spent the last two years searching for moxie and grit, making Lucic attractive as part of a provincial switch aimed at salvaging something – anything – from a pair of bad deals.

Lucic clearly had his own engagement issues, openly admitting after the trade he was having a hard time getting motivated on a bottom-dwelling club he felt pressure to be better on.

In Calgary, he feels relaxed in a role more suitable to his skill set.

It’s certainly safe to say most Alberta residents – north and south – saw Edmonton as having the higher upside on the deal.

The fact is, a 25-goal bounceback for Neal doesn’t mean the Oilers would “win” the swap.

Ultimately, the best judge of which team came out better revolves around a season-end review determining if Neal could help land Edmonton a playoff spot and if Lucic’s role can help Calgary past the first round or two.

Win-win seemed the most probable outcome, which is exactly where it’s trending early.

Both teams are getting far more out of the new player than their previous employer did.

“He had to waive his no-trade clause for us to switch spots, so I thank him for that,” Neal told Mark Spector on Wednesday. “We both needed a fresh start — he struggled here and I struggled in Calgary.

“Calgary needed a guy like him to come in there, a guy who can score goals but a guy who plays physical. He takes on one of the tougher guys last night in MacDermid. He’s a great player.”

A Neal resurgence would certainly help the Flames personnel-wise as hitting the 21-goal mark would land Calgary a third-round draft pick this summer, as long as he outscores Lucic by at least 10.

As a trade-off, Lucic’s deal is more onerous to buy out than Neal’s.

Sadly, the first Battle of Alberta isn’t until Dec. 27.

Until then, the only salvos fired will continue to come via endless texts between the two fanbases.

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