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Oilers' new GM makes mark with trade for Neal

Holland looks to change culture, increase scoring in move that sent Lucic to Flames

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Ken Holland had been quiet after the Edmonton Oilers hired him as general manager on May 7.

Not anymore.

Holland made his mark on the Oilers on Friday when Edmonton traded forward Milan Lucic and a conditional third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft to the Calgary Flames for forward James Neal.

 

[RELATED: NHL Trade Tracker]

 

Convinced the status quo would not be good enough after the Oilers finished seventh in the Pacific Division last season, 11 points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Western Conference, Holland decided that trading Lucic, whose declining production was a microcosm of the Oilers' recent failures, was a perfect place to start.

"It's been a tough go for a couple of years, and I became the manager and after talking to everybody and going through meetings with all our people, I just felt if I could find a deal to kind of change the dynamics of the team, I thought it would be a positive," Holland said. "We'll see."

Video: AUDIO | Ken Holland Interview 07.19.19

How tough have times been for the Oilers? Edmonton has missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including the past two. It's a big reason Peter Chiarelli, who was GM when Lucic signed a seven-year contract on July 1, 2016, was fired Jan. 23. 

In stepped Holland, who was general manager of the Detroit Red Wings for 22 years (1997-2019). The Red Wings qualified for the playoffs in their first 18 seasons under Holland and won the Stanley Cup three times (1998, 2002, 2008).

The Oilers are looking for similar success, though Holland's first big move in Edmonton is risky.

Neal had a nightmare season with the Flames after signing a five-year, $28.75 million contract with Calgary on July 2, 2018. 

The 31-year-old was a healthy scratch for Calgary's final game of the season, Game 5 of the Western Conference First Round against the Avalanche, a sour ending to a season when he had 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 63 regular-season games.

It was a dramatic drop for Neal, who has 514 points (270 goals, 244 assists) in 766 NHL games with the Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, Vegas Golden Knights and Flames.

In his previous 10 NHL seasons, Neal never failed to score at least 21 goals. That included a 25-goal season in 2017-18 that helped Vegas reach the Stanley Cup Final, which it lost to the Washington Capitals in five games.

"Certainly, the reason these guys got these contracts is that they've been really good players and they've got to these teams and then they haven't performed at the level they did prior to that," Holland said of Lucic and Neal.

Lucic, once one of the NHL's most-feared forwards, scored 30 goals for the Boston Bruins in 2010-11 and had at least 50 points five times.

Last season, Lucic had 20 points (six goals, 14 assists) in 79 games with Edmonton. It was the fewest goals he scored in the NHL and matched the fewest points of his NHL career, with the Bruins in 50 games in his third season (2009-10).

In the trade, the Oilers retain 12.5 percent of Lucic's annual NHL salary cap charge of $6 million ($750,000).

Video: Oilers trade Milan Lucic to the Flames for James Neal

Beyond an equitable financial agreement, Holland said the basis for the trade was that he and Flames GM Brad Treliving agreed that a fresh start could benefit each player and each team. 

"Certainly, I have talked to Milan and I know he's excited for the opportunity to go to Calgary," Holland said. "And I know James Neal is pretty excited for the opportunity in Edmonton."

Edmonton has a clear need for better top-six wings to play with centers Connor McDavid, who had 116 points (41 goals, 75 assists) in 78 games last season; Leon Draisaitl, who had 105 points (50 goals, 55 assists) in 82 games; and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who had 69 points (28 goals, 41 assists) in 82 games. 

Add Alex Chiasson's 22 goals and Edmonton's top four goal-scorers had 141 goals, 62 percent of its 229 for the season.

Zack Kassian scored 15 goals after playing frequently on McDavid's line in the second half, but no other Oilers forward scored 10.

"My job is to try to find enough dimensions and pieces and players and depth so that the coach (Dave Tippett) has some options," Holland said. "Now we go to training camp and for the Edmonton Oilers, James Neal is going to get a real opportunity, probably to play on one of the two power-play units, and we're looking for him to be a top-six forward. So there will be lots of opportunity."

It will be up to Neal to find the chemistry and production that Lucic could not.

"I think we have playmaking centermen," Holland said. "Certainly, James is a shooting winger, so Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, they've got good hockey sense, can make plays and create scoring opportunities for their linemates."

When NHL free agency opened July 1, the Oilers had limited NHL salary cap space and signed only depth players, including forwards Markus Granlund and Tomas Jurco and backup goalie Mike Smith, each to a one-year contract. Edmonton also re-signed Chiasson to a two-year contract.

Holland knew he'd have to make a trade to fulfill his main goal of acquiring a top-six wing who could score.

"I'm hoping both players play real good and both players really positively impact their teams," Holland said. "Then it's a great trade for both teams, and that's ultimately what I'm hoping for."

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