Geek of the Week: Was the Lucic vs. Neal 1-for-1 a Win-Win for Fantasy Owners?

by Ben Burnett on October 20, 2019
  • Geek of the Week
  • Geek of the Week: Was the Lucic vs. Neal 1-for-1 a Win-Win for Fantasy Owners?

Among the weirdest moves of the 2019 off-season saw two bitter provincial rivals swap two bad long-term contracts. When the Edmonton Oilers traded washed-up power forward Milan Lucic to the Calgary Flames in exchange for aging goal-scorer James Neal, both teams likely thought they were swapping bad contracts and two players well past their primes.

Things haven’t exactly worked out evenly in that regard, however, as Neal has proven to be a goal-scoring machine playing on the first power play unit in Edmonton, while Lucic has been welcomed with open arms to the C of Red in Calgary for his grit and gaudy penalty minute totals.

With Neal leading the league in goals through the first two weeks of 2019-20, and Lucic leading in penalty minutes, both are interesting to fantasy owners in different ways. In multi-cat leagues a five-minute major can be equally as valuable as a few goals scored, and so today we’ll look at the two players who were traded at their lowest values this off-season, and what we can expect from them over the rest of the season.

Milan Lucic

In his prime, Lucic had the upside to produce offensively while putting up elite peripheral numbers. At one point, the Boston winger was a 60-point scorer who would routinely top 100 penalty minutes and 200 hits. At this point, his best days are clearly behind him.

In his first year in Edmonton, Lucic looked like he still had a little left in the tank. 50 points, 50 PIMS, 175 shots, and over 200 hits is still very useful in bangers leagues. Since then, Lucic’s numbers have been in free-fall. The past two years he’s put up 34 and 20 points, and through nine games in Calgary he’s on pace for nine points over 82 games.

What hasn’t left Looch’s game is the elite peripheral totals that helped put teams over the top in bangers leagues. So far this season, the loutish left wing is pacing for 267 penalty minutes and hits. But is there any chance the point totals can rebound similarly to Neal?

Lucic has only topped 15 minutes twice in the Flames’ nine games this year. Not ideal for a player who hasn’t been able to hit 0.5 points per game over the past three campaigns. So what is Lucic’s offensive upside on this Flames team? And where do we see his peripherals actually levelling out?

I looked at his usage in Calgary and projected his average time on ice at even strength and on the power play for the rest of this year. I then used data from the past few seasons to take a look at the rate we can expect him to continue to produce across categories in peripheral-based leagues:























Looch is definitely underperforming so far, but not to a point where I’d expect regression to make him suddenly fantasy relevant. You like the hits and the penalty minutes, but he’s below replacement level in virtually every other category.

James Neal

From his rookie year in 2008-09, until he signed with the Flames before 2018-19, Neal was the 15th highest scorer in the NHL. He averaged 31 goals for every 82 games played in those 11 seasons. While Neal appeared to be slowing down as long ago as his seasons with the Nashville Predators, no one could have predicted he’d score only seven goals in 63 games with the Flames last year.

Only eight games into his career in Edmonton, Neal appears to be back in a big way. Through those eight games, he leads the league with nine goals on 27 shots, including six goals on the power play. He’s also added 11 hits in that span, which puts him on his highest hit pace since 2015-16. Given he’s scoring on one-third of his shots, Neal’s obviously potting goals at an unsustainable pace – but what’s a reasonable projection for him rest of season?

There’s no question that a big element of Neal’s success so far, and moving forward, is power play deployment. The winger has become a central part of a power play unit that leads the league. Neal started the season receiving 3:20 PPTOI, and playing over 70 percent of Edmonton’s total power play time. Last year saw Edmonton give their big three (Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) over 70 percent of their PPTOI. That means Neal’s deployment isn’t necessarily unsustainable if he can stay somewhat productive.

Neal’s currently shooting almost 29 shots per 60 minutes on the power play, which would have led the entire league last year. It seems possible Neal could finish near the top of the league this year in powerplay shot rate, given the Oil’s current power play configuration. But it might be more sustainable to suggest he shoots roughly 20 shots per 60 minutes over the next 76 games, as that number is much closer to other power play triggermen’s full-season totals last year.

Projecting Neal at his current rate, Neal will play roughly 253 power play minutes over the rest of 2018-19. Those volume shooters on the powerplay last year carried shooting percentages close to 15 percent on power play shots, which matches Neal’s career average shooting percentage on the man advantage.

So here’s a look at what Neal’s numbers might look like over a full year (including the first eight games of data) should he continue to see the same deployment in Edmonton. I’ve included a row for powerplay expectations just to show how reliant on that deployment he is to keep up his October production:
































My main takeaway from this exercise is that James Neal has very interesting season-long upside. 36 – 19 – 55 would be excellent Cy Young-type production from the Oilers winger. 245 shots would also be an excellent return to form, and 65 hits gives him a decent floor in multi-cat leagues. These numbers are more than enough to make Neal fantasy relevant in season-long formats.

While Lucic has some gaudy peripheral potential, Neal clearly remains the better option, if only because of the ceiling should he can hang on to his deployment. That remains the most important element of Neal continuing his hot start: so long as he’s the trigger-man on PP1 in Edmonton, he can be a top-100 fantasy option.

Lucic remains rosterable in deeper leagues, but I think he’s a clear streamer unless something drastically changes in his usage. The only way one could call last summer’s trade a win-win is if Brad Treliving thinks his team plays in a peripheral-only league.

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