There is a very real chance that when Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final concludes tonight in Tampa Bay that the 2021 NHL season will end with it. The Lightning have a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Montreal Canadiens, and look poised to end Montreal’s Cinderella run. If they do, the NHL off-season will officially begin.
For fans of the Edmonton Oilers, that won’t come a moment too soon. Ever since the Winnipeg Jets dashed the hopes of the Oilers in the third overtime of Game 4 of their First Round series back in May, the focus has turned to off-season changes to the roster. Those changes could start as soon as 24 hours after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final.
That is when the NHL’s first buyout window will open. It’s likely, if not certain, that Edmonton will use the window to buyout a contract or two. GM Ken Holland strongly hinted at it back in May at his season ending press conference.
“Very possible,” Holland said when asked about the possibility of buying out a player or two this summer at his end of season press conference back in May. “Not 100 percent sure but very possible.”
Fast-forward to today, and a buyout still seems very likely for the club. NHL insider Frank Seravalli wrote a piece on Tuesday about ten potential buyout candidates from around the NHL, and placed an Oiler quite high on his list.
2. JAMES NEAL
Left Wing, Edmonton Oilers
Contract: 2 years remaining at $5.75 million AAV
Scoop: Oilers GM Ken Holland indicated he could buyout one, if not two players this summer and Neal rises to the top of the list. He was a healthy scratch for a large chunk of the season after struggling to regain form from an early season COVID-19-related illness. Neal finished with 10 points in 29 games. A buyout would leave Edmonton with a $1.92 million dead cap charge for the next four seasons, representing just shy of a $4 million savings in each of the next two campaigns.
Seravalli outlines the reasons why a buyout of Neal makes sense. After a strong first half to the 2019-20 season, Neal struggled in the second half of the season and was a non-factor in 2021. With Jesse Puljujarvi emerging late in the season as a net-front presence on the powerplay, Neal’s value has greatly diminished.
Holland admitted that adding secondary scoring would be a priority this summer, and improving at five-on-five will be a big part of that. At this stage of his career, Neal is no longer an impactful player at five-on-five, and doesn’t have the speed needed to play inside the top-six.
It seems unlikely, at best, that Neal will return for the 2021-22 season. Holland would prefer to trade Neal, but its not likely that a team will take on his contract without a significant sweetener. The Oilers simply don’t have the assets to accommodate that.
The extra cap space, nearly $4,000,000, will be worth the extra two years of money tacked on at the end as Holland looks push his team to new heights.
Seravalli also names Mikko Koskinen as a ‘name to keep an eye on’ when it comes to buyouts. It’s unlikely that the Oilers will buy two players out, and if Koskinen is to move on it likely comes in the form of a ‘creative’ trade.