I must say that the Edmonton Oilers have won back a few fans by finally trading away disgruntled agitator Milan Lucic to the Calgary Flames for forward James Neal. I would personally venture to say that this deal executed by general manager Ken Holland is the biggest trade victory Edmonton has had since receiving forward David Perron from the St. Louis Blues in 2013.
Though the Perron acquisition wasn’t a sure win for the Oil at first glance six years and 50 organizational trades ago (he went on to produce 57 points in the 2013-14 season), Oilers fans can finally see a trade that will certainly improve their team offensively. Without a doubt, Neal will make a bigger impact on the Oilers than Lucic did and here’s why:
Neal was stuck in Flames head coach Bill Peters’ doghouse for the majority of last season, with the former 40-goal scorer often finding himself demoted to the fourth line. To be fair, Peters started Neal at the beginning of the season in the top six group playing alongside Flames superstars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, giving him an opportunity to succeed. But similar to Lucic in Edmonton, Neal’s frustration with his lack of production was felt amongst his teammates, too, which may have contributed towards the lack of chemistry between he and his linemates who felt pressured to help him succeed. Evidently, it was tarnished relationships with the coach and teammates that ultimately drove him out of Calgary.
The Oilers are hoping that Neal can rekindle the success he enjoyed as a rookie playing for current Oilers head coach Dave Tippett with the Dallas Stars, under whom he registered 24 goals for in his inaugural campaign. Having a previous relationship with Tippett will be important for Neal as Tippett will have confidence in him and provide him with the “long leash” he never received in Calgary to return back to the way he played with the Vegas Golden Knights just over one calendar year ago.
Neal also has a good relationship with Mike Smith, who was instrumental in convincing the native of Whitby, Ontario to sign with the Flames last summer. Having Smith as a good buddy, who is always well liked by his teammates wherever he plays, will certainly help Neal integrate with the other players in the locker room.
In addition to having played with Smith, Neal showed some promising chemistry with Connor McDavid at the 2018 NHL All-Star game, playing on a line with him. This excitement will not only motivate Neal, but will also give the Oilers captain more trust in the players around him by having a former 40-goal scorer somewhere near him in the lineup.
Some other notable Oilers players Neal has played with before include Kris Russell and Sam Gagner when they all suited up for the 2007 Canadian gold medal World Juniors Championship team. This familiarity and positive relationships with current players will definitely get him a step ahead of where he was when he started with the Flames last season.
Experience Playing with Superstars
During Neal’s four seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was a staple on Evgeni Malkin’s wing and helped the Russian sniper secure the Hart, Art Ross, and Ted Lindsay Trophies in the 2011-12 season. I think Neal’s ability to find open space and convert when provided the opportunities will be beneficial for the Oilers’ three-headed center monster consisting of McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
I primarily envision Neal playing with RNH consistently, allowing McDavid and Draisaitl to stay together. In addition, Neal will definitely add another weapon to the Oilers’ first unit power-play arsenal alongside their superstar centers, hopefully being able to convert on the many one-shot opportunities Lucic often failed to.
Draisaitl centering Neal and a speedy winger like Tyler Benson is also an option. This line would be reminiscent of when Neal played with Malkin, who shares many qualities with Draisaitl. Malkin and Draisaitl both have dominating bodies who can safely carry the puck into the zone and maintain possession using their size along the boards.
I believe Neal will be able to keep up with the speed of the Oilers’ top guns a lot better than Lucic did and will play a lot smarter off reads because he will know which spots to go to in order to convert. Tippett certainly has a lot of options to play around with in his top-six, but one thing for sure is that Neal can provide the 20-plus goals the Oilers are desperately missing.
Prove Me Right, Neal!
Though the Oilers had to retain 12.5% of Lucic’s salary and we have yet to see Neal play in an Oilers uniform, I think we can all agree that the Oilers came out on top in this deal given the amount of upside and potential Neal possesses to return to his old self. Sending a stagnant overpaid bruiser over to the Alberta rival in exchange for an almost guaranteed 20-plus goal scorer definitely helps put into perspective how much more dynamic Edmonton’s offence can be. To Neal: please live up to expectations and not make me regret writing this article in high hopes for you, or else you will make all of us Oilers fans look more stupid than we already are!