After three seasons in Edmonton, two of which were disasters, the constant speculation of where Milan Lucic will be traded to has finally been answered, and it’s right next door.
The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames swapped problem cases with James Neal heading on up to the City of Champions in “the best shape of his life” and Lucic flying down to Cowtown on the recommendation of Jarome Iginla.
Neal had about as poor of a season as Lucic did from an offensive production standpoint with both players failing to hit double digits in goals. That was a career first for Neal, who has never scored fewer than 21, even in the lockout-shortended 2012-13 season. For Lucic, it was his lowest goal total in a full season in his entire career as well, just ahead of the eight he scored as a rookie.
Both players are 31-years-old — Neal will turn 32 before next season begins — so there’s absolutely real decline in performance setting in for both players, but how much blame for the steep drop in shooting percentage both players have recently experienced be placed at the feet of age?
Neal has been a money 20-goal scorer or better his entire career, and while his shot rates have been declining since he was traded to the Predators, they aren’t out of scoring territory yet.
Lucic has never been the same level of goal scorer as Neal, but he’s always been more of a pass first player who shoots on cleanup and rebound plays, leading to high shooting percentages despite not being a sniper. Are both players completely washed?
Usually when you’re exchanging a problem for a problem, you’re not expecting much, so let’s set the expectations low when we’re looking at the two Alberta teams trying to salvage something here. Ignoring cap implications and draft picks that could be involved if certain conditions are met, which player is more likely to provide something for their new team?
The first thing to look at is offensive production. While Neal has had great power play numbers in the past, almost all of that was during his Penguins years where he was the beneficiary of great chemistry with Evgeni Malkin. He was also a shooting option for that elite triumvirate of Malkin, Crosby, and Letang playmaking. Neal may be able to capitalize on Connor McDavid’s brilliance, but it would be unfair to expect him to be transformative there.
Lucic similarly has mostly been an okay-at-best power play contributor aside from his first season in Edmonton, so let’s keep things to even strength.
Both players are below league average among forwards at generating shots from the net front, and both were below average at getting their scoring chances on net, but Neal remains slightly above average in actual scoring chances he fires at the net. There’s also a pretty sizeable gap between him and Lucic in each offensive category.
While a below league average playmaker, spending most of his team set up in the slot receiving passes instead, to still be hovering around league average there anyway isn’t too shabby.
Lucic meanwhile, looks like a low end third line winger offensively, or possibly even lower considering he doesn’t appear to have a standout skill that teams can exploit to create offence through him, whereas Neal does.
So the question for Neal and the Oilers has to be whether he has lost his fastball or not? How much can you trust a shooting percentage of five per cent over 63 games compared to a career of shooting 11.6 per cent over 766 games?
As a thought experiment, had Neal shot at his career average last season, and played all 82 games, he would have scored 21 goals. That would have made him the Oilers’ fifth-highest scoring player last season despite a drop in ice time with the Flames, so there’s a real chance he could help the Oilers out quite a bit offensively, or at least mitigate the incoming shooting regression Alex Chiasson will have.
Scoring isn’t the only factor though, so let’s look at the impact each player has had on teammate performance.
Looking at the differentials, the offence Neal brings over Lucic clearly comes at a cost, as the Flames were worse by every measure when he was on the ice last season.
It’s important to note that Calgary was one of the top teams in the league in all these categories, especially in the shot quality areas, and while Neal was way below team average, for the most part his differentials on a raw scale were still positive.
Lucic, meanwhile, played on a terrible team, and most of his differentials were awful when looking at them in a raw form. But adjusted relative to teammates, he wasn’t a boat anchor on team performance overall, he was just not a contributor to goals for in any meaningful way.
Lucic’s main positive impacts were on more volume-oriented side of the ledger with shots and shot attempts, but he had essentially no impact at all on shot quality. What this means is, while he’s by no means a shiny new toy that the Flames can expect to tip the scales for them in games, he doesn’t single-handedly drag a line down either.
The problem I see for Lucic is unless he’s put in a perfect position for his offensive game to come back a little bit, his main purpose seems to be to not get wholly outplayed, and maybe intimidate players a little if you believe that exists or even helps.
Neal is a defensive liability who is very capable of scoring 20 goals. He’s a declining asset and makes too much money, but the league is filled with players who have similar profiles to Neal that teams make good use of in limited or specific roles. If the Oilers’ coaching staff is smart and uses Neal correctly, there’s no reason to think he can’t help them be more competitive. I just don’t see that sort of potential for Lucic because he simply lacks a standout skill at this point in his career.