Ken Holland’s made his first couple trades as Edmonton Oilers general manager and it includes a significant transaction. The Oilers traded Milan Lucic (and retained $750,000 of his salary) and a conditional third-round pick (pick goes to Calgary if Neal scores at least 21 goals and outscores Lucic by 10 goals) to the Calgary Flames for James Neal.
Holland’s second trade, the rights to college defenceman John Marino to Pittsburgh for a conditional sixth-round draft pick, is less impactful, but a decent move if Marino was trending towards not signing with the Oilers.
A solid trade?
Lucic for Neal is a solid win from Holland. The Oilers either get a useful player for taking on $500,000 more in cap hit and a third-round pick or they get a far better buyout for next summer.
Holland’s deal for Neal demonstrates more creativity than Peter Chiarelli showed in his entire tenure as Oilers general manager. The Oilers can buy out Neal’s contract next summer if he’s struggles as much as he did in Calgary and save nearly $3.5 million in cap space. Compared to a Lucic buyout or trade, where the Oilers could only retain $3 million maximum of Lucic’s salary, it’s a good move. Neal has to put up a strong season to starve off a buyout, which is unlikely. Lucic for Neal is not a perfect scenario. A Neal buyout extends cap penalties for three more seasons, but it opens enough cap space and solves a longstanding problem.
Holland wasn’t a big trader in Detroit. He’ll have to make some positive deals as Edmonton’s general manager and Lucic for Neal is a step in the right direction. Chiarelli entered the job and immediately traded picks for Griffin Reinhart, Cam Talbot, and Eric Gryba. Talbot gave the Oilers a few good years and Gryba was a decent third-pairing guy, but trading two high draft picks (that turned into Mathew Barzal and Mitchell Stephens) for Reinhart is akin to lighting them on fire. Holland doesn’t have the luxury of assets Chiarelli did. He’ll need to win more trades and do it with less trade assets and cap space. Not a bad start.
Skill over toughness
Philip Broberg, Neal, Joakim Nygard, Markus Granlund, Tomas Jurco, and Josh Archibald are all mostly skilled players. Neal has some edge to his game. Archibald hits, too. But they aren’t Lucic, Zack Kassian, or Patrick Maroon. Chiarelli’s Oilers emphasized ‘Heavy Hockey’ and toughness, which never really made sense when you have one of the fastest, most skilled players in hockey, maybe ever and another player that’s not terribly far behind. It wasn’t long ago when the Oilers featured Patrick Maroon, Lucic, Kassian, and Gryba. Just Kassian remains.
Calgary’s championing Lucic’s toughness and character after a first-round upset against Colorado. Lucic might be a more effective third-line player beside Mark Jankowski and Sam Bennett than Neal, but his contract is one of the worst in the league and cannot be bought out for much cap relief. Sure, the Flames save some real dollars and $500,000 on the salary cap, but shedding Lucic’s contract is a win for Holland and the Oilers. Holland’s signed his fair share of tough veterans to bad contracts: Justin Abdelkader, Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, Luke Glendening, and Niklas Kronwall, but he’ll have to resist handing those out with the Oilers.
Next season isn’t a concern
Past the draft and free agency, it’s clear next season isn’t Holland’s biggest concern. Only one contract signed goes beyond one season (Alex Chiasson). Neal is an interesting reclamation project and remedies the Lucic situation, but he’s likely heading towards a buyout next offseason. Selecting Philip Broberg eighth overall means Holland as concerned about short-termed success as some may think. Holland opted to not only keep the pick, but chose a defenceman. Broberg won’t be NHL ready for at least a couple of seasons, while some of the American forwards chosen near the eighth slot are likely closer to the NHL as of now.
Holland’s added Neal, Mike Smith, Nygard, Gaetan Haas, Jurco, and Archibald this summer. That’s not a group that will take this team to the next level. A few useful players may arrive, but these additions mean Holland isn’t worried about being good in 2019-20.
Building for 2020 and beyond
Lucic for Neal clears cap space for 2020 and beyond. The Sekera buyout opened up space for this season and next. Chiasson’s $2.25-million cap hit was the largest handed out by Holland in free agency, with Smith’s $2 million in second place.
Not contending in any season McDavid plays is painful, but it’s obvious Holland is more focused on making big additions next summer. The cap should go up more and the Oilers will have greater flexibility with numerous players going into the final seasons of their contracts (Chiasson, Adam Larsson, Kris Russell, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins).
Chiarelli didn’t do most of his damage in his first summer in Edmonton. The Reinhart trade was very poor, but the following offseason was the one that sunk Chiarelli. Chiarelli traded Taylor Hall for Adam Larsson and signed Lucic in his second offseason with the Oilers. Holland will be doing more roster construction in 2020 than this summer.