Ken Holland has been fairly quiet since becoming Oilers general manager, until now.

The Edmonton Oilers have traded Milan Lucic and a conditional third-round pick to Calgary for James Neal. The Oilers will retain 12.5 percent of Lucic’s contract ($750,000). The Flames receive a 2020 third-round pick if Neal scores at least 21 goals and outscores Lucic by 10 goals next season.

Holland’s biggest move before the Lucic-Neal trade was buying out Andrej Sekera, who only played 50 games combined the past two seasons. Getting out of the Lucic contract is a big win, even with salary retained and a draft pick going to Calgary.

Holland’s first trade as Oilers general manager is a big one. Resolving the Lucic situation is a solid start to his Oilers career.

Milan Lucic James Neal
2016-17 1.21 1.98 17.1 1.47 1.01 17:42
2017-18 1.3 0.71 15.58 1.75 -0.51 17:11
2018-19 0.97 3.51 13:14 0.99 -3.2 14.57
PTS/60 and CF% Rel stats are five-on-five only.

Neal was just as poor in Calgary as Lucic was in Edmonton last season. He scored a career-worst 19 points in 63 games, ending his streak of 10 straight 20-goal seasons. Neal spent most of last season with Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett, but also had time with Mikael Backlund and Derek Ryan.

Neal isn’t going to score 30 goals and 50 points, but that’s okay. Even 15 goals and 30 points is more than what the Oilers were getting out of Lucic. Neal has a better chance to bounce back with only one poor season to Lucic’s two (arguably three).

Neal had a five-percent shooting percentage last season. If he shot his career average (11.6%) he would have scored 16 goals instead of 7, a 21-goal pace over 82 games.

Neal is already Edmonton’s best left winger, which reflects the state of the roster beyond Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. It’s easy to see Neal sliding in beside McDavid or Nugent-Hopkins. Neal still had 2.24 shots per game with Calgary last season, which would have been fourth for Edmonton forwards. Lucic was below one shot a game.

Since arriving in Edmonton, Lucic has been done five-on-five. He hasn’t been the same player he was in Boston or Los Angeles. His days as a top-six, and maybe even top-nine, option in the NHL are likely over. Neal is a better bet to rebound, but the key to this trade is Neal’s buyout. Lucic’s contract is so poor with a bunch of money structured as signing bonuses. Signing bonuses are paid out in full, so buying out Lucic offers almost no cap relief. Neal’s contract doesn’t have any signing bonuses. His $5.75-million cap hit is the same salary he receives every year.

Season Neal Buyout Lucic Retention Total Savings
2020-21 $1,916,667 $750,000 $2,666,667 $3,333,333
2021-22 $1,916,667 $750,000 $2,666,667 $3,333,333
2023-24 $1,916,667 $600,000 $2,666,667 $3,333,333
2024-25 $1,916,667 $0 $1,916,667 $1,916,667
2026-27 $1,916,667 $0 $1,916,667 $1,916,667
2027-28 $1,916,667 $0 $1,916,667 $1,916,667

The Oilers can buy Neal out next summer and have a $1.916-million cap penalty for six seasons. If Neal returns to form a buyout could be postponed until 2021, leaving a $1.916 million cap hit for only four seasons. With salary retained, that’s nearly $3.4 million in savings a season.

Lucic for Neal offers more flexibility. If the Oilers trade Neal at fifty-percent salary retention, that leaves a $2.875 cap hit for three seasons.

Trading Lucic at fifty-percent of his cap hit seemed unlikely. Adding more cap penalties past the four years Lucic and Neal have on their contracts isn’t ideal, but it puts the Oilers in a better position going forward. Neal doesn’t have any trade or movement protection.

Holland adds $500,000 to the cap this season, but potentially opens $3.3 million in 2020-21. Maybe Neal bounces back with McDavid or Nugent-Hopkins. Maybe not. Either way the Oilers are better positioned than they were with Lucic and his contract.

At best, the Oilers got a top-six winger for a $6.5-million cap hit for the next few seasons. At worst, the Oilers swapped a better buyout for the price of a third-round pick and $750,000. Are the Oilers a better team? That’s debatable, but they’ve created a path towards opening cap space and improving the team in the future.