CALGARY – A nuclear deterrent for a nuclear bomb.
Two of the NHL’s biggest reclamation projects changed Alberta addresses Friday when the Calgary Flames acquired Milan Lucic from the Edmonton Oilers for James Neal.
The Oilers will retain some of Lucic’s lofty salary and send the Flames a conditional third-round draft pick.
It’s as creative as it is gutsy for both sides.
The Flames entered the summer with a wish list that included trying to get tougher and trying to rid themselves of the Neal deal.
They satisfied both in one fell, ugly swoop Friday.
Both players are 31 and have four years left on contracts considered to be amongst the biggest busts in the NHL.
Where they differ is what they bring… and what they’ll ultimately cost to buy out.
Neal, acquired last summer to be a 30-goal scorer, posted seven goals for the Flames this year, demonstrated no pushback and proved to be too slow for today’s game.
As it turned out, the Flames didn’t need goals, they needed someone who cared.
They needed to get him out of that dressing room.
Four more years of that at $5.75 million was an unbearable thought for Flames GM Brad Treliving, so he took drastic steps to correct his most egregious of mistakes.
Lucic’s three-year stay in Edmonton has been a struggle too, but the five-time 50-point man still has one thing in his arsenal the Flames need most – toughness.
Adding muscle to the lineup has been Treliving’s top priority for over a year, and few would disagree Lucic is the toughest guy in the NHL.
Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and the rest of the Flames needed that.
Last July 1, the Flames thought they had signed UFA Ryan Reaves before the scrappy winger had a change of heart and re-signed with Vegas.
Earlier this month, the Flames had a deal for Nazem Kadri before it was nixed by the agitating centre.
Unlike Kadri, Lucic is thrilled with the idea of escaping his current situation to play in Calgary.
Although Lucic has fought very little the last couple years, few players dared to mess with Connor McDavid under Lucic’s watch.
His six fights over the last two seasons speak to how respected the 6-foot-3, 231-pound left winger is as a pugilist. Few are in his weight class.
Critics will say those numbers speak to his inability to light a fire under himself.
The Flames have known for years the best way to avoid waking the bear in Lucic is to ensure no one pokes him.
Now it’s clear Flames management and coaches will be the ones cajoling Lucic nightly, pushing him to be his feisty best.
“This is not going to be fun team to play against,” said Treliving, who will also employ classic agitators in Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett once their contracts are ironed out.
“There’s still a little bit of the law of the jungle here. It’s like running with a group of guys – the top guys just feel better. Nobody is going to mess around. Intimidation is still part of the game.”
No one should expect Lucic to regain the touch he had as a former 30-goal scorer.
After all, he’ll likely reside on the left side of the fourth line where Garnet Hathaway scored 11 times this year while becoming a fan favourite for taking a pound of flesh from every opponent he could.
He’ll be asked to skate, hit and generally get involved.
Lucic’s speed is still much better than many would think, and his fitness levels are beyond repute.
Treliving has had extensive conversations with Lucic of late, garnering the firm belief he is acquiring a man highly-motivated to not only get out of Edmonton, but resurrect his stature in his new environs.
It’s a risk, but given what Neal brought (or more accurately, didn’t bring) it’s strictly a swap of two projects each team is hoping to turn around.
The biggest risk for Treliving comes in the structure of Lucic’s four remaining years, which make it cringe-worthy to buy out.
That’s why the Oilers had to sweeten the deal by retaining $750,000 of the annual Lucic hit, and offering up a conditional third-round draft pick.
Neal’s buyout this summer would be a straight, eight-year hit of $1.9 million, saving the team almost $4 million in cap space every year.
Lucic has four years left at a $6 million cap hit annually (minus the Oilers’ annual $750,000 contribution), but because of the way the deal is structured, a buyout saves much less cap space for the Flames. More like $500,000 annually.
Thus, the Oilers sweetened the pot for the deal to happen, make Lucic happy and even the toughness factor in a Battle of Alberta rivalry that had the Oilers laughing at the Flames’ reluctance to push back.
No doubt the Flames will eventually buy him out if he doesn’t provide the physical presence he’s long built his career around. His no movement clause adds to the risk factor as an AHL demotion isn’t an option if Lucic is unable to play engaged.
But it’s a calculated gamble to swap the Flames worst contract to address the team’s biggest hole.
Forget about what he makes, Lucic provides something few players left in the league can.
In fact, he may still be the very best at what he’s being brought in to do.
And he’ll do so while playing meaningful minutes on a team that will be thrilled to have him on board.
Neal is reportedly working out with fitness guru Gary Roberts this summer to try resurrecting a fitness level and scoring a touch – something McDavid may be able to help him find.
A change of scenery has worked for Neal several times before, which is obviously what both GMs are hoping for with this deal.
Even if the upside there is higher, it’s irrelevant to the Flames as Neal wasn’t going to be able to find a top-six spot in Calgary.
Finding a way to ship him out of Calgary seemed impossible, until the Lucic swap materialized.
After a quiet summer in which the Flames are essentially stalled by the massive contract Matthew Tkachuk is commanding, the swap came hours after news broke the Flames are on the verge of a deal with the city for a new arena.
More than a year of quiet talks with a city committee aimed at building an event centre a few hundred metres from the aging Saddledome have culminated with the parameters of a deal that will be discussed in city council Monday. The city-owned building would be operated by the Flames, whose ownership group will be contributing a significant portion of the close to $600 million project.
City council is expected to vote soon on the proposal.
With roughly four years needed to have it complete, Lucic will have as big a say as anyone as to whether he’ll be around long enough to suit up for the Flames in their new rink.