Flames, Oilers hoping problem wingers can rekindle lost form

Mark Spector, Eric Francis and Ken Reid break down the trade between the Flames and Oilers that sent James Neal to Edmonton and Milan Lucic to Calgary.

The question, as the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers swap their problem wingers, is simple: Can either of these players regain the form they once had?

Milan Lucic for James Neal. Two 31-year-old unhappy players who failed to live up to their multi-year UFA deals, swapped in a one-for-one — almost. Because Lucic’s contract presents a more difficult buy-out, the Oilers have tossed in a conditional third-round pick in 2020.

Also, the Oilers will retain $750,000 of Lucic’s salary, marking the end of a long, unsuccessful chapter of Lucic’s career, having scored just 16 goals in his past 161 games.

But really, it’s about whether either can become the player they were signed to be.

Neal is a scorer — pure and simple. He doesn’t do much else for you when he’s not scoring. And, for a guy who has scored 20 goals or more in 10 of his 11 NHL seasons, he’s been traded three times now and was left open in the Vegas expansion draft.

That points to character issues, plain and simple.

In Edmonton, however, where Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are starving for a right-winger who can score, can Neal become a 20-goal man once again? If he can, Edmonton wins the trade, as it is unlikely Lucic will see the offensive opportunity in Calgary that awaits Neal in Edmonton.

Because anyone who has watched Lucic stumble through the past two seasons wouldn’t bet you a nickel that he will ever be a top-six producer ever again. All that remains in Lucic’s skillset is size and intimidation, both of which have diminishing value in today’s game.

Lucic arrived in Edmonton on July 1, 2016, was brought in on a seven-year, $42 million deal and was handed the job on Connor McDavid’s left side. “The McDavid factor changes it all,” Lucic beamed that day. “That’s why I chose to come here.”

Just two days prior, Taylor Hall had been traded to New Jersey, leaving Lucic as the heir apparent to thrive on McDavid’s left wing. Unfortunately, Lucic never found a fit with McDavid, He scored 23 goals in his first season as an Oiler, but notched just 10 and six in Years 2 and 3, betrayed by failing hands and waning foot speed in an ever-quickening National Hockey League.

Patrick Maroon took over the No. 1 left winger’s job in Lucic’s first year as an Oiler, and privately, Lucic has been asking for a trade ever since. In Calgary, he’ll find a team that he and the Oilers outmuscled habitually over the past few seasons, an itch that needed scratching in Calgary — especially with young Matt Tkachuk always happy to stir things up, but often times in need of the kind of backup that Lucic can supply.

Lucic is still tough as they come. The problem lies in that NHL players simply let him sleep, realizing that playing against Lucic is better than fighting with him.

The two contracts appear similar. Both have four years remaining, with Lucic earning $6 million to Neal’s $5.75 million. The retained dollars leave each team with an equal cap hit for the next four years.

Neal’s deal does not come with signing bonuses, however, meaning that he has $23 million remaining in cash owed the player. Lucic, who received his latest bonus on July 1, only has $16 million left to be paid. That’s $7 million dollars less for Calgary to pay out, a consideration for a Flames team with less revenues than Edmonton due to the arena disparity.

Lucic has a No Movement Clause, while Neal does not. That means the Oilers could send Neal to the farm if he doesn’t work out, while the Flames cannot demote Lucic. But, it’s the buy-out that favours Edmonton here, and the reason why the Oilers had to add the conditional draft picks to make this trade happen.

Let’s say both players were busts, and each team decided to buy them out after next season. Neal would cost the Oilers a cap hit of $1.9 million for six seasons, a savings of $3.83 million for the final three seasons of Neal’s contract.

Lucic’s contract is almost buy-out proof, providing only $500,000 in cap relief for five of the six years of the buy-out. (All figures courtesy PuckPedia)

So, the Oilers get a scorer that they believe can be rehabbed, next to the pedigree of centremen he will be greeted by in Edmonton. The Flames get some toughness, and are relieved of a dressing room problem.

It’s an exchange of bad contracts. Time will tell if it’s also an exchange of bad players.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.