Oilers: A more creative way to deal with James Neal’s contract

Edmonton Oilers, James Neal #18 (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
Edmonton Oilers, James Neal #18 (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images) /
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There’s no question James Neal had a bad year this past season. After almost cracking the 20 goal mark two seasons ago based almost exclusively on PP goals (he would’ve cracked the 20 goal mark if the season hadn’t have ended prematurely), he took a huge step down this season, only putting up 5-5-10 in a mere 29 games this past season – and with only one PP goal and three PP points to boot. The lone bright spot in his season is he finished with a -2, much improved on -20 from two seasons ago.

Because of this, many people are advocating for James Neal to be bought out, however this would be most unwise right now. Many people are celebrating the fact that the Oilers would save just over $3.8 million in cap space for 2 seasons – and while that’s true, it’s only part of the story. The part many people are leaving out is that it would create dead cap space of $1.9 million for two seasons afterwards.

That’s something the Oilers could ill afford at this time, considering the contracts that are going to need re-upping in the interim. Jesse Puljujarvi and Kailer Yamamoto will be on new deals by that time, and both will be getting raises, especially Puljujarvi if he has an encore or an upgrade in him next season.

If Ryan Mcleod becomes a full time top-six forward, that cap space would probably pay for his raise. Darnell Nurse will need a new deal by that time, as will Bear and Jones. Ditto Evan Bouchard and Philip Broberg, the former of whom will likely be playing a bigger role on the team by that time and will need the raise to match. Who knows what’s happening with the goalie position at that time, but if Ken Holland acquires a better goalie we’ll need cap space for that too.

Still think a buyout is a good idea after all that? I don’t. The Oilers will have lots of cap space this season, but will likely need that buyout cap space down the road.

Not to mention the great irony in fans and bloggers clamouring for more dead cap space after all the dead cap space on our books right now will be off the books by that time. Milan Lucic’s 750K of retained salary to play against us is off the books, as will Andrej Sekera’s $1.5 million in dead buyout cap space. Benoit Pouliot’s buyout is off the books once the fiscal cap year turns over.

Now you want to start all over with almost that much in 1 player after all of that? Give your heads a shake.

There’s a better way to deal with Neal’s contract, one that would give us more cap savings and no dead cap space.

But first, let’s take a blast into the past and find out why James Neal had such a bad season.  It’s quite simple really, and it’s only one reason:

Health

James Neal missed training camp because of covid, and then contracted covid later on in the season so not only did he miss time after that but then had to go through the standard quarantine period of 14 days. You don’t think missing training camp and a huge chunk of the season had an impact on his health, and subsequently his conditioning and play? You bet. So here’s my two-part strategy:

Keep him for next season

We saw what a healthy James Neal could do two seasons ago when he was healthy. A guy who is a PP specialist that can score 20 goals a season on the PP I have time on my roster for. This guy fits in well with the McDrai duo on the first unit PP and was a big reason why the PP finished first in the league two seasons ago. Yes, I know they did that this season too, but the PP of two seasons ago was so good it went down as one of the NHL’s best PP percentages of all time. A healthy James Neal was vital to that PP.

So why reinvent the wheel? What are the odds Neal will get covid twice in one season again? Keep him on the roster for one more season and let him loose to do what he does best: score on the PP.

After next season this might actually open teams up to trade, provided the Oilers keep at least half of his cap hit. With only one more season left on his contract after then, this would be a single season commitment to his current contract for both the Oilers and his trading partner.  That’s very reasonable, and very doable. They don’t save quite as much as they would from a buyout, but there’s no dead cap space after his contract is up. But, I have an even better plan than that for Neal, and it goes a little something like this:

A James Neal trade in the 2022 offseason

To Seattle

James Neal

To Edmonton

2022 Seattle third-round pick

$2 million retained cap for one season

To New Jersey

Oilers 2022 and 2023 fifth-round picks

$1.75 million of Neal’s retained cap for one season

Why?  

I became inspired to this trade after the Nick Foligno deadline deal to Toronto – I didn’t even know you could trade another player’s retained cap to another team until that trade was made.

This trade is a win-win for all parties involved.

For the Oilers, they now only have to pay James Neal $2 million instead of the $5.75 million scheduled, with no dead cap space afterwards.  They save almost as much as they do with buyout, except no dead cap space after. That’s much better asset management in my books.

Seattle will have cap space to burn after only 1 season in existence, so they’re a great place to send Neal to – not to mention Neal is a guy who will help their PP immensely, be a veteran presence in their bottom six, and he played in Vegas during their inaugural season so he’s been through being on an expansion team before.

He’d be a good fit for them, and with the cap space being retained by both the Oilers and the Devils, all they’d have to pay him is $2 million for one season. After that, if they wanted to re-sign him they could do so at a much lower rate. “But couldn’t they just take him in the expansion draft” you might ask? Well technically yes, but then they’d have two seasons of James Neal at $5.75 million as opposed to one at $2 million with this trade. The better option is obvious.

New Jersey finished the year with the most cap space of any team in the league – over $10.5 million. They’re a rebuilding team and have quite a few contracts due but none that would require huge raises dolled out to anybody.

They could easily afford to keep $1.75 million of Neal’s cap hit if it means they get two fifth round picks long after Neal’s cap hit is off the books for them – just like San Jose could easily afford Foligno’s $1.375 million for this season.

That was pro-rated, of course, but still. If I was their GM Tom Fitzgerald, I’d gladly take on short term cap space from other teams in exchange for draft picks you get without having to give up warm bodies or prospects for – and of course, the Devils are rebuilding so they need all the draft picks they can get. They won’t do a lot of these trades for obvious reasons, but they might do this one. We already sent them our 4th rounder in this draft, why not send them our fifth-rounders for two years in this trade?

If Neal stinks in a Seattle uniform, then he walks as a free agent in 2023, and no harm done. Meanwhile, the Oilers save $3.75 million against the cap for that season, they gain a third-round pick and give up only two-fifths – and no dead cap space after Neal’s contract is up. That’s pretty good asset management to me. Seattle only has to give us a third-rounder, which is not very valuable in this day and age. Jersey gets more draft picks and all it costs them is cap space for one season. Win-win-win.