The Oilers didn’t win this trade on Wednesday, the day that James Neal scored four goals against the New York Islanders. They won it the day the trade was made back in late July. Oilers fans were elated that day and with good reason.
The team needed to a) get out of a long-term contract for an underperforming player with a No Movement Clause who would have to be protected in the coming Seattle expansion draft b) not swallow too big of a poison pill in return c) shake things up, shake the box, move out a player who had become a symbol of ex-GM Peter Chiarelli’s incompetence and d) find a way to move out slower and less skilled players in favour of faster and more skilled players. Oilers GM Ken Holland accomplished all that on the day he traded away Lucic for James Neal. It was readily apparent then. It was a huge win in that moment, and it was hard to imagine how anything might change that calculation.
Can the Calgary Flames also get a win out of this trade? Yes, maybe they can. I predicted in May that the Oilers would be able to move Lucic and not swallow too big of a poison pill because it was evident that in the real world of the NHL, Lucic still had some value as a fourth line tough guy and — and this was the critical piece — he also had far more value to another team (one desperate for toughness) than he had to the Oilers, a team stacked with tough guys like Darnell Nurse, Zack Kassian and Jujhar Khaira. Calgary needed toughness and so far it sounds like they’re happy that Lucic is providing some.
After Colorado’s Nikita Zadorov ran a Calgary player into the boards, Lucic came to his teammate’s defence and punched Zadorov in the face. I can recall when we’ve been starved for that kind of physical response in Edmonton, which is why we were so elated when the Oilers brought in Steve MacIntyre a few years back, so over-joyed when Zack Kassian went after Oliver Ekman-Larsson after OEL made a dirty hit on Matt Hendricks. There is wide disagreement on the value of this kind of physical pushback, but it’s clearly valued by many GMs, coaches and players, so I think it’s foolish not to put some weight in it.
At the same time, and let me be perfectly clear, I was thrilled the day the Neal-for-Lucic trade was made and, of course, I’m even more thrilled now. Neal has six goals in three games, almost as many as he had all of last year in Calgary. None of the goals have been cheapies. He’s not a fast player, but he’s still got the fast hands and cool head of a goal scorer.
There is no way on earth Lucic would have scored the goals Neal is is scoring on the power play. Lucic simply doesn’t have those kinds of hands. Instead he’s got what boxer Roberto Duran used to call his “Manos de Piedra,” hands of stone. If Lucic keeps on throwing those hands of stone in Calgary, many Flames fans will be satisfied with his contribution. But if Neal puts in 20-plus goals in Edmonton, the Oilers might just make the playoffs. I’ll take that.