Edmonton Oilers place James Neal on waivers, welcome back Jesse Puljujarvi from COVID protocol

Edmonton Oilers place James Neal on waivers, welcome back Jesse Puljujarvi from COVID protocol

Author of the article:

Bruce McCurdy  •  Edmonton Journal

Publishing date:

Feb 13, 2021  •  1 day ago  •  5 minute read

Edmonton Oilers forward James Neal (18) and Chicago Blackhawks forward Drake Caggiula (91) battle for the puck during second period NHL playoff action in Edmonton on Saturday, Aug. 1, 2020. Photo by Jason Franson /CP

Even as the other six Canadian team take to the ice in Hockey Day in Canada action, the Edmonton Oilers have a well-deserved day off on Saturday. The Oilers did make some news this morning, however.


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Winger James Neal has become the latest Oilers forward to find himself on the waiver wire as GM Ken Holland looks to maximize flexibility up front. Holland reduced the number of forwards on his active roster to 12 some time ago, with game day changes occurring directly from the taxi squad to the active roster. The waiver of Neal will add him to an extended list that already includes Jujhar Khaira, Tyler Ennis, Alex Chiasson, Devin Shore, Joakim Nygard, and Patrick Russell. All of them cleared waivers earlier in the season, even as the 30-day exemption period after a successful waiver starts to apply to some of them. As an example, Khaira, who cleared back on Jan 12, would need to be waived again at this point in the unlikely event that the Oilers felt the need to send him back to the taxi squad.

The first four of those bolded names, along with Neal himself, played in Edmonton’s most recent game, a 3-0 win over the Canadiens right in Montreal. With other forwards including Zack KassianGaetan Haas, and (temporarily) Jesse Puljujarvi on the injury/COVID lists, the Oilers have made extensive use of their taxi squad options.

Some good news on that last front, as Puljujarvi has been cleared to rejoin the team after some ambiguous test results on Thursday.


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For his part Neal actually contracted COVID just before he was slated to travel to Edmonton from Nashville before the season. That caused a late start to his season as he endured an extended quarantine in each city while he recovered from the illness. He was finally activated in Game 6 and has subsequently played 9 of 11 games, posting boxcars of 2-1-3, -2 in a bottom six role with close to three minutes per game on the first powerplay unit. The Oilers have had about 45% of both shots and goals during his 89 minutes of action at 5v5.

Neal moved up the line-up in the Montreal game, taking Puljujarvi’s spot at 1RW alongside Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. He managed a couple of decent shots on goal but struggled to keep up to the pace of play, as he has generally done throughout much of the season to date. There has been precious little sign of the lethal hands which have produced 291 NHL goals in his accomplished career.

How much of that is due to his late start and his general health vs. the fact his skills are in decline at age 33 is an open question. But it seems that the team wants to open up the option to sit him out for a given game here or there.

The Oilers technically have a 23-man roster but Holland has chosen to use all three of his “extra” spots on defencemen, in a lopsided 12 F / 9 D / 2 G distribution. But there is method to his madness. With all three of youngsters Ethan BearCaleb Jones, and William Lagesson having graduated from their Entry Level Contracts this season, all would need to clear waivers before being assigned to the taxi squad, and Holland has plenty of reason to believe that they wouldn’t. Same goes for young veteran Slater Koekkoek, another useful defender with a sub $1 million cap hit. The one vet who has been in and out of the line-up, Kris Russell, remains protected from waivers by the No Movement Clause to which he and Peter Chiarelli agreed in 2017. Finally, young Evan Bouchard is on the first year of his ELC and can be moved to the taxi squad freely, but for now he is a regular in the game night line-up.


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That leaves the Oilers in a tight spot at both forward and, famously, in goal, where they have already lost two would-be #3 stoppers via the waiver route. To this point they have been unscathed by waiver claims up front and that is virtually certain to remain the case tomorrow morning.

While Neal is technically available to any NHL team that might wish to put in a claim in the next 24 hours, the chances of that actually happening are effectively zero. The winger is on an expensive ticket of $5.75 million for the remainder of this and two additional seasons. There are few NHL teams with the cap space to even consider it, and frankly zero reason why they should.

From an Edmonton perspective such a claim would be a massive break, but don’t get your hopes up, Oil fans. Time has proven the Oilers can’t get out from under the Milan Lucic contract that easily, even as Lucic himself was moved along for Neal in the summer of 2019. The biggest advantage to that “real deal” — which cost the Oilers in terms of cap retention ($750,000), a draft pick (third round in 2021), and $7 million in actual cash paid out on Lucic’s front-loaded contract — was that Neal’s pact had no restrictive clauses that would force the Oilers to protect him in the upcoming expansion draft, or preclude them from buying it out at some future point. That latter issue will no doubt be a topic for discussion in the upcoming off-season.

The absence of a NMC in Neal’s pact is not only critical to the upcoming expansion, it enables them to place the player on waivers today. The Oilers would have had no such option with Lucic were he still with the team.


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At such time as Neal is placed on the taxi squad, only marginal salary cap savings can be achieved and even those are uncertain. A maximum of $1.075 million of any contract can be buried off-roster, while any replacement called up to the roster will have at least the league minimum cap hit of $700,000. There are further complications due to the fine print of Long Term Injured Reserve legalese which the Oilers invoked when they placed Oscar Klefbom on LTIR at season’s start.

For now James Neal will surely remain an Oiler, even as he seems destined to join the rotation of depth forwards who can be cycled in and out of the line-up based on team need and recent form. Nothing saying such a move is imminent; the Oilers waived Chiasson a couple of weeks ago, then placed him right back in the line-up. I frankly expect the same respect is shown to Neal next game as a sign he is still in the team’s plans even after enduring the indignity of the waiver wire.

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