Edmonton Oilers: Should they consider a James Neal buyout?

The Edmonton Oilers have an interesting decision to make on James Neal

There’s been a lot of talk on the interwebs about people advocating to buyout James Neal. For those who want to do it, I get it. Mostly because it looks like a good idea on the surface for the Edmonton Oilers to consider making.

After all, it would save valued cap space in the short term.  The years when the extra money we’d pay him would come after all the other buyout cap hits currently on the books expire. Even the retained salary of Milan Lucic would expire then as well.

But, if you take a look below the surface, it doesn’t look like as good an idea as it seems.  Let’s take a closer look at why buying out James Neal is not a good idea right now:

Neal still has a purpose on the Edmonton Oilers

Let’s take a look at some of the other players the Oilers have bought out.  Pou had 2 decent seasons here and then dropped off the map with a whopping 14 points in the regular season and none in 13 playoff games. Not to mention that he dealt with the injury bug quite a bit, never once playing a full season in the 3 he played with the Oilers.  He deserved to be bought out and we’re currently paying him $1.3 million in cap space to play against us, which expires at the end of next season.

Remember Sek the Slovak?  He was our big free agent signing in 2015-16 – or he would’ve been if we hadn’t signed Milan Lucic the same offseason.  Anyway, we gave him $5.5 million a year for 5 years.  He did pretty good his 1st 2 seasons but then after that injuries hit and he was a shadow of his former self.  His buyout cap hit will be with us until after the 2022-23 season.  He had to go off the roster.  It sucks but it was necessary.

Then there was Gryba the grinder.  He was a dud who we shouldn’t have signed in the first place.  Fortunately, his 300K is up after the conclusion of the playoffs. Anyway, the one thing all these players have in common is they couldn’t contribute anything useful to the team anymore.

That’s not something we see with Neal.  Has he lost a step playing at even strength?  You bet he has.  But there’s an area of the team where he excels at, the PP.  Last season Neal had 12 of his 19 goals on the PP.  That’s #2 on the entire team – only Dr. Drai bested him.  He did so well at the beginning of the season he was actually leading the league in goals.

If you buy him out it must be asked where do the extra 19 goals come from?  Especially the 12 on the PP? Is $5.75 million overpaying a player who is a PP specialist at this point?  Yes, fair point.  But contributing to the PP is still contributing to the team.  Would everyone feel better about him if his cap hit was only $3 million?  Absolutely.  But it’s not, so it’s better to grin and bear it for now.  Let him do what he does best, disappear on the 4th line and when the PP comes over the boards let him snipe one home.

The savings in his cap hit would be a temporary bandaid for the Edmonton Oilers

The first 3 seasons of the buyout, the $3.8 million we save against the cap would be great, but the $1.9 million we hemorrhage after that?  Not so much.  I’m willing to bet we’re going to need that $1.9 million down the road.  Take a look at all the contracts we’re going to need it for in the future.

Most notably, Leon Draisaitl will need a new contract in season 2 of the $1.9 million hemorrhage.  Even with increases in the cap at that point, those will likely be negligible and this cap hit would eat into any savings in the cap.

There are two better ways to deal with the contract

1 – Seattle expansion draft

The Oilers won’t be as fortunate in the Seattle expansion draft as they were in the Vegas expansion draft.  Most of the core were still in their ELCs and thus were exempt or could be protected.  This time around, tough decisions will have to be made.

In the Vegas expansion draft, a lot of teams traded low-end draft picks to Vegas in exchange for them taking certain contracts off their hands or not picking certain players in the expansion draft.

In the case of certain teams – like Florida and Nashville – that tactic blew up in their faces as they ended up giving up players for nothing who would go on to be part of Vegas’s core.  But, if done right, it can help your team.

I think with a guy like Neal, this could help the Oilers.  Neal would be attractive to Seattle as a veteran player for their bottom 6 who would be a great weapon on the PP, not to mention an expansion team will usually have potential problems getting to the cap floor.

Who better to help with that than Neal’s $5.75 million cap hit?  Not to mention the Oilers then don’t have to worry about another player they couldn’t protect leaving for nothing. All the Oilers would have to do in this scenario is wait one year, then his entire cap hit would be off the books.

2 – Trade it by retaining salary

Instead of buying him out, why not trade Neal and retain, say, $2.75 million in cap space?  That instantly makes him more attractive to other teams.  The Oilers still save $2.75 million in cap space for multiple seasons and then the retained salary is off the books in 2-3 years instead of having to hemorrhage almost as much for 3. To me, this is plan B if Seattle won’t take him in the expansion draft.  Much better use of the cap space in comparison to a buyout.

Bottom line

It’ll be interesting to see what – if anything – Ken Holland does with Neal after the season is done.  He’s got a few options so let’s see what he does.