A rejuvenated James Neal a perfect fit for Edmonton

Acquiring forward James Neal from the rival Calgary Flames is one of Ken Holland’s best transactions in years. He’s been a great addition to the Edmonton Oilers this season.

As the Detroit Red Wings continue their lengthy rebuild, Ken Holland was forced to step aside this past summer. Team owner Chris Ilitch decided to shift gears, trying to add some much-needed excitement to the organization by hiring a new general manager — the teams’ legendary captain Steve Yzerman. As Holland took a minute to reset, the Edmonton Oilers called. Considering the roster, accepting the job became a no-brainer.

As Holland organized his new desk in Edmonton, he must have started to look through the names and contracts and felt right at home. The fact is, the Oilers’ roster somewhat mirrors the same issues Holland left in Detroit in a few critical areas.

That being said, Edmonton has something many teams desire: generational talent to build upon.

Since Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk left the Red Wings, Detroit has failed to replace them with super-star caliber players. Don’t forget, before Zetterberg and Datsyuk there was Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov as the torch continued to be passed. As the famous Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston song describes ”it takes two”, it’s no different when it comes to the NHL.

The Oilers are, of course, led by Connor McDavid, who’s arguably the best player in hockey, along with his side-kick Leon Draisaitl. The foundation had been in place before Holland joined the Oilers, but similar to the issues he created in Detroit, Edmonton had plenty of salary problems and a lack of secondary scoring surrounding these two super-stars.

The Oilers have question marks in goal, similar to Detroit. As the trade deadline approaches, the Oilers may seek goaltending help as both Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith have been nothing short of suspect throughout the season.

But what was Ken Holland’s first order of business? Addressing the secondary scoring issue was a must. Holland was able to flip an atrocious contract in exchange for what appeared to be an ugly deal in its own right. Holland moved a worn-out, slow, challenged scorer in Milan Lucic for a perennial 20-goal scorer in 32-year old James Neal coming off of his first bad season as a professional.

For Edmonton, it was a low-risk, high-reward deal. It’s a deal that’s worked out perfectly for the Oilers. Neal currently sits having scored 19 goals to date on the season, with the majority of his production coming on the power-play.

His 12 power-play goals are second across the league to just Boston’s David Pastrnak. Neal, the Whitby, Ontario native, appears to be rejuvenated by playing alongside McDavid and Draisaitl, as he’s enjoying a career-high 17.9 percent shooting percentage that certainly backs that up.

Neal’s $5.5 million salary remains a tough pill to swallow when you consider he isn’t proving to be a very reliable asset during even-strength play, as his Corsi Percentage For is a mere 49.4 percent — or a touch below league average. Still, he’s continued to make up for that with his elite power play success.

Neal’s 19 goals place him third on Edmonton’s roster; his 27 points rank him fifth. After McDavid’s 71 points and Draisitl’s 70 points, the secondary scoring tails off with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins currently third on the roster with just 30 points.

Expect Holland to explore a rental defenseman, maybe a goaltender and a depth forward as the trade deadline approaches. The Oilers currently sit fourth in the Pacific Division, just two points out of first, but a mere one point ahead of the Canucks and Jets in the wild card race.

Until then, moving Lucic, who’s scored a total of 20 goals over the last three seasons combined compared to Neal’s 19 thus far this season, is an absolute win for Ken Holland and the Oilers.

Next: Where would the Oilers be without their top duo?

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