When the Oilers and Flames swapped a pair of albatross contracts this off-season, with Edmonton flipping Milan Lucic to Calgary in exchange for James Neal, all estimations were that the Oilers would ultimately come out ahead, if for no other reason than Neal's ability to skate somewhere in the middle of a thin lineup and potentially produce alongside one of Connor McDavid or Leon Draisaitl. What no one could have known at the time, though, was just how quickly the deal would look like a laugher.
While Lucic has had a slow start to his time in Calgary, Neal's early days in Edmonton have been unbelievable. After mustering a mere seven goals all of last season, Neal has already matched that output in only five games with the Oilers. It helps, of course, that he had a four-goal outing, but he's been firing away in each outing and getting his opportunities. Case in point: his 19 shots are second in Edmonton behind only Leon Draisaitl's 22, and Neal's ability to put pucks on goal in the early going have him in line to double last season's shot total.
So, as those north of the border celebrate Thanksgiving, there's assuredly some Oilers fans feeling awful thankful for the way that swap worked out. (That's not the least of all true because Edmonton hasn't exactly had great luck in the trade market in recent years.) But Edmontonians aren't alone in having something to be grateful for in the early days of the campaign. Here's one thing for which each team should be thankful this season:
Anaheim Ducks: John Gibson hasn’t missed a beat. He was the backbone of the Ducks last season and in a world where wins weren’t overvalued by GMs, who vote for the Vezina Trophy, the 26-year-old likely would have finished higher in top-goaltender voting in 2018-19. If he can keep it up this season, he could be a top-five keeper this season.
Arizona Coyotes: He’s only played a pair of games, but Barrett Hayton has acquitted himself well in his first full NHL contests, picking up an assist in his debut and skating 11:31 and recording two shots in his second. The Coyotes need to continue injecting offense into their lineup, and it looks like they have something promising in Hayton.
Boston Bruins: There was potential for a financial logjam in Boston this off-season, but the Bruins should be thankful for GM Don Sweeney’s contract magic. Not only do the Bruins have Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand under wraps for a combined $19.67 million for each of the next three seasons, Sweeney inked the defensive duo of Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo to bridge deals that will cost a combined $7.75 million over the next two campaigns. (Yes, Bergeron’s deal was a holdover from Peter Chiarelli’s time, but the point stands.)
Buffalo Sabres: Every point matters and the Sabres are piling them up. That’s something to be grateful for in the early campaign. Better yet, Buffalo coach Ralph Krueger seems to be pushing all the right buttons and the Sabres’ underlying numbers in the early stages of the season are promising for sustained success. Maybe the worm is finally starting to turn.
Calgary Flames: The early returns on the Milan Lucic deal aren’t great, particularly not when James Neal is producing the way the Flames had expected before they shipped him to the Edmonton Oilers, but at least he can be buried down the lineup without Calgary losing much. The offense isn’t reliant on Lucic being his former self. He can settle into a role as a very well paid fourth liner.
Carolina Hurricanes: Last season wasn’t lightning in a bottle. The Hurricanes are for real. The attack has been effective, they have what is arguably the best and deepest defense corps in the league and the goaltending has been good through the first six games. There’s legitimate reason to believe the Hurricanes can end up atop the Metro.
Chicago Blackhawks: Things aren’t going well in Chicago and there’s not much to be over the moon about right now. Chances are the Blackhawks are going to be sellers come the deadline. And if Erik Gustafsson keeps this up and again produces at a 60-point pace once again, he can fetch Chicago a healthy return ahead of the trade freeze.
Colorado Avalanche: Cale Makar has been as advertised. Through four games, he has five points – all assists – and is already seeing ice time that eclipses 20 minutes per night. The Avalanche estimated that he could replace what was lost in Tyson Barrie, and he sure has in the early going.
Columbus Blue Jackets: The mass exodus in the off-season included goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and while the goaltending hasn’t been great through five games, the one plus for the Blue Jackets is that they still have Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. The strength of the blueline is what will keep Columbus somewhat competitive this season.
Dallas Stars: Roope Hintz turned a lot of heads last season with his rookie performance, and he’s turning into a legitimate top-six threat for the Stars at a time when the rest of the offense simply hasn’t produced. His four goals and five points in six games lead the way in Dallas.
Detroit Red Wings: The Red Wings hesitated to go all-in on Anthony Mantha when his entry-level deal expired, but his development has been exceptional since. He produced at a career-best rate last season and is on pace to do so again. His breakthrough is something Detroit needed to start moving forward.
Edmonton Oilers: Those in Edmonton have to consider landing Connor McDavid a blessing.
Florida Panthers: Thankful? Maybe that the season isn’t decided in October and there’s still plenty of time for Sergei Bobrovsky to find his footing. His numbers are ugly through the first four games of the season, but he could start to settle in any day.
Los Angeles Kings: Ilya Kovalchuk’s first season in Los Angeles, albeit a 34-point campaign, was a failure. He was expected to produce 20-plus goals and 50-plus points. The good news is that it appears new Kings coach Todd McLellan is pushing all the right buttons when it comes to Kovalchuk, who has two goals and six points through five games.
Minnesota Wild: Ryan Suter is still Ryan Suter, which is to say he’s still the minute-munching, defensively stable blueliner that he’s always been. Not much has gone well for the Wild this season, but if Suter continues to play as he has, Minnesota’s own-zone play won’t be a concern when he’s on the ice.
Montreal Canadiens: Two things. The first? Max Domi is making quick work of any prediction that he would be a one-season wonder in Montreal. And the second is that Jonathan Drouin is quieting any and all trade rumors with two goals and six points through five games. He’s firing on all cylinders.
Nashville Predators: The whole Kyle Turris thing hasn’t worked out, and given he’s averaging a dozen minutes per night on his $6-million per season deal, it seems safe to say he’s not long for Nashville. But the Predators’ other gamble on a name-value pivot, Matt Duchene, has most certainly paid off. Two goals and nine points through five games to start the season for Nashville’s big summer signing.
New Jersey Devils: The trade deadline doesn’t come until February, which means the Devils have time to figure out a way forward with Taylor Hall. New Jersey wants to keep the pending UFA in town long term, without a doubt, but the Devils might need to show some signs of growth in order for Hall to be persuaded.
New York Islanders: Let’s go off the board and say the development of Devon Toews. He might not have been on the radar as a big-name prospect, but Toews has blossomed into a reliable middle-pairing rearguard who can produce offensively. He’s got a goal and three points through five games and is skating nearly 20 minutes per night.
New York Rangers: Before the start of the season, we noted Mika Zibanejad as a player who was ready to become a legitimate NHL star. Four goals and eight points in three games suggests he’s on his way.
Ottawa Senators: The Senators needed a win. They needed one in the worst way. And while it’s still far, far too early to make anything big of the Vladislav Namestnikov acquisition, the early returns – two goals, four points, 19 minutes per night across two games – are promising. Even if Namestnikov is mere trade fodder, the more he produces, the better the return.
Philadelphia Flyers: It really does seem as though Carter Hart is going to be the answer. He’s backstopped the Flyers to points in each of their first three games and he blanked the Devils in his second outing of the campaign. Good start.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Evgeni Malkin is hurt. Nick Bjugstad is hurt. But Sidney Crosby is not, and sometimes, that’s all that matters. Crosby has put the Penguins on his back early in the campaign with three goals and 10 points in six games.
San Jose Sharks: Getting a boost up front was as simple as picking up the phone and calling Patrick Marleau. The 40-year-old was a late addition to a roster that was struggling early and he’s already produced two goals and three points. That’s veteran depth help that can make a difference.
St. Louis Blues: Jordan Binnington’s numbers aren’t league-topping at the moment, but he’s shown that last season was no fluke. He’s still the same, level-headed keeper he was throughout the 2018-19 campaign.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Brayden Point’s return couldn’t have come at a better time. He lifted up the Lightning in his return, producing two goals and three points in two games, and he solidifies an already outstanding top six in Tampa Bay.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Given how top-heavy the salary structure is in Toronto, the Maple Leafs need to find hidden gems. Ilya Mikheyev fits the bill. In his six games, he’s cemented himself as a middle-six fixture by chipping in two goals and five points. The only trouble is that Mikheyev is going to need a new deal for next season and his price is going up.
Vancouver Canucks: Quinn Hughes is proving himself to be the blueliner of the future that Vancouver had hoped he would be. It’s only been four games, but he has one goal and three points, he’s been leaned on heavily by coach Travis Green and his 20-minute ice time average ranks fourth among Canucks blueliners.
Vegas Golden Knights: Landing Mark Stone at the trade deadline last season was a coup for the Golden Knights. He’s one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and Stone is producing like he’s got visions of the Hart Trophy in his mind. He has four goals and nine points in six games.
Washington Capitals: With the caveat that it’s early, it seems as though there may be a crease transition taking place in Washington. Braden Holtby has struggled, but Ilya Samsonov has posted a .961 save percentage across his two starts this season. If he steals the top job, it should make the Capitals’ decision regarding pending UFA Holtby much easier.
Winnipeg Jets: Patrik Laine needed a bounce back year. He’s having it so far. Through seven games, he has three goals and 11 points. Put another way: through eight percent of the season, he’s already at 22 percent of last season’s point total. At this rate, he’s staring down a potentially career-high point total.