As buyout window opens, one member of Edmonton Oilers is particularly at risk

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2021 Edmonton Oilers in review
James Neal

The Tampa Bay Lightning sewed up their second consecutive Stanley Cup on Wednesday night, dispatching the Montreal Canadiens in a 5-game series whose 1-0 denouement seemed more inevitable than nail-biting. At least in 2021 the Bolts got the experience of clinching the chalice on their home ice in front of a packed house of rabid supporters. A far cry from the antiseptic environment that was the Edmonton Bubble of 2020. But in both settings, the brilliantly-constructed Tampa group were simply too good for the rest of the NHL to handle.

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The handoff of the Stanley Cup from the white-gloved hands of Philip Pritchard to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and on to Bolts captain Steven Stamkos not only marked the end of another (entirely weird) season, it also triggered the official start of what will be a busy and truncated off-season.

First up is the buyout window, which in 2021 opens up 24 (-ish) hours after the awarding of the Cup and extends right through to July 27, the eve of free agency. Hard to know when within that window the axe may fall on certain NHL players, just the certainty than in some cases, it will. Watch for news dropping at 10am MDT daily, as players targeted for buyout must first be placed on waivers (unless they have a no-movement clause, in which case they have the option to reject the waiver process and proceed directly to the buyout).

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Here in Edmonton, GM Ken Holland indicated at his end-of-season media avail that the Oilers are considering the buyout process for at least one of their veterans: “Very possible a buyout will be part of the process. Not 100% sure, but very possible.”

A couple of names to be considered here including #2 goalie Mikko Koskinen, but surely the likeliest is winger James Neal.

The veteran winger was signed to a 5-year, $28.75 million pact by Calgary Flames in 2018, a commitment that was quickly followed by buyer’s remorse. Neal was a poor fit on an otherwise-successful Flames club in 2018-19, and the following July was dealt to their provincial rivals in Edmonton for another high-profile, under-performing winger in Milan Lucic. Both men had 4 years left at similar cap hits, but the Neal contract had the virtue of being “clean” —  the same base salary every year with no other clauses. The Lucic pact on the other hand was chock full of unfavourable terms, including heavy front-loading, a no-trade clause that made it unmovable without the player’s consent, and massive bonuses which rendered it almost buyout-proof.

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When the deal came down on July 19 — 2 days after Lucic had drawn down another $3 million signing bonus — Holland had achieved what many saw as a miracle. Just 3 months into his Edmonton tenure, he had moved the immovable contract.

The trade came at a considerable cost to the Oilers, though, including cap retention of $750,000 per season, a 3rd round conditional draft pick that was controversially awarded to the Flames, not to mention some $7 million of Daryl Katz’s personal fortune that had been prepaid on the Lucic pact at the time of the deal. But the Oilers earned two crucial considerations: that Neal wouldn’t have to be protected for the Seattle expansion draft (Lucic has subsequently waived his rights in that respect), and that Neal could be bought out at some future point, allowing the Oil to achieve very real cap savings. A sad state of affairs when a massive contract’s saving grace is its “buyoutability”, but such was the corner that former GM Peter Chiarelli had painted the Oilers into with the onerous terms of the Lucic deal.

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Of course, the other hope was that Neal would simply prove to be a better player than Lucic at this point of their substantial careers, and for a while that proved to be the case. Neal jumped out of the gate with 8 goals in his first 6 games, and by the end of December he had connected 19 times in 42 contests. He was particularly effective on Edmonton’s devastating powerplay. Even as there were some troubling aspects to his game, to that point in time, a strong case could be made that Neal was performing, or at least producing, at something equivalent to his pay scale.

But then the calendar turned to 2020 and the wheels came off. Neal struggled with injury in the second half of the season, playing just 13 of the final 29 games and scoring exactly 0 goals before the season itself went down for the count. He wound up just 1 goal short of what would have been his 11th season of 20 or more tallies. Even with the quiet finish, he wound up with the best shooting percentage of his career thanks to that red-hot start.

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Health continued to be an issue in the shortened 2021 campaign, in which COVID-19 ravaged not only society as a whole including the sporting world, but James Neal personally. He contracted the illness himself during off-season training in Nashville, got a late start on proceedings in Edmonton and by all accounts and appearances, dealt with the aftermath for much of the season. He was spotted in and out of the line-up, spent time in the press box, on injured reserve, on the taxi squad, and, inevitably, even a day on the waiver wire. A sobering moment for a proud veteran, but possibly just a precursor for what lies ahead now.

By season’s end, Neal had played 29 of 56 games, barely half of the Oilers’ schedule. Moreover, he averaged barely 12 minutes of ice time per game, by far a career low. Consigned mostly to the bottom 6, he scored just 5 times and assisted on another 5. That’s a per-82 pace of 14-14-28, not nothing by any means but far below the production that might be expected for a $5+ million player.

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James Neal career stats

  • Note: mobile device users may need to click the “View on Edmonton Journal” tab at the bottom of this post to see the graphics.

Indeed, it’s taken Neal 2 seasons to barely surpass the 82-game mark in Edmonton. Both shortened by COVID, of course. Taken together, his production of 24 goals over 84 games is respectable enough, but the splits are extreme: 19 goals in the first 42, just 5 in the last 42.

Indeed, the career curve shown above is the classic case of a power forward hitting a steep decline as he enters his 30s. After 10 straight seasons north of 20 goals, Neal finally came north of the border for the first time when he signed that rich free-agent pact with the Flames. Just at that point that his game went south.

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3 years into that contract, just 31 goals, only 60 points. His ice time has dwindled, but not as fast as his shot volumes. Injuries and illnesses aside, his 2 years in Edmonton have produced the 2 lowest shots-per-game rates of his career.

At 5v5 he’s produced 1.09 points per 60 minutes as an Oiler, ranking 330th among the 370 NHL forwards to have played at least 720 minutes over those 2 years. That puts him smack dab in the middle of fourth-line scoring rates. (By comparison, Lucic ranks 267th at 1.38 P/60, a low-3rd line rate.)

Neal turns 34 in September, with the likelihood of him returning to the productive form of his prime years growing ever more remote. Not impossible that he might have another healthy season in him and enjoy some sort of resurgence, but if you are Ken Holland are you willing to gamble another $5.75 million on that? Or is this the time to pull the trigger on that “buyoutability” that the GM bought and dearly paid for two Julys ago?

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The guess from this distance is the latter.


The terms of a buyout are straightforward enough for a balanced contract like Neal’s. Save a third of the cap hit outright, split out the remaining two thirds over double the remaining term. So for Neal, instead of 2 more years at $5.75 million, 4 years of a cap penalty of about $1.9 million. Opening up $3.8 million in each of the next 2 seasons.

The Oilers already have quite a bit of cap space to work with this summer, but they have plenty of holes to fill at multiple positions. One of those needs is a top-six scoring winger, one for which the James Neal of 10 or even 5 years ago would have been an excellent solution. Today? Perhaps the better play is to open up that cap space and see what ~$4 million can buy on the open market.

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One odd fact in all of this, is that even as Neal’s career has hit the the downhill slope, his teams continue to do well. In fact he’s played in the playoffs the last 11 years running. In his most difficult season Calgary finished first in the West, while the Oilers finished second in their division in both of his seasons here.

But his showing in these most recent playoffs was a tell. Neal played the first 2 games, but saw barely 10 minutes of ice time a game with 0 points and about that much impact. By Game 3 he was back in the press box and there he remained.

Best guess here is that was a harbinger of what is to come next. 4th line production at a 1st line cap hit is a luxury few teams can afford, least of all the Oilers.

Recently at the Cult of Hockey

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Follow me on Twitter @BruceMcCurdy

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