These days, when the NHL Draft rolls around, fans sort of expect a notable trade. It has happened several times now, such as last year when the Devils traded for Cory Schneider. Earlier in the day, the Anaheim Ducks traded for Ryan Kesler, but that was not the end of the big moves on the first day of the 2014 NHL Draft. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who of course traded Jordan Staal on draft day a few years ago, have traded James Neal to the Nashville Predators.
My first thought upon seeing this trade was mild surprise that the Predators were part of this big, splashy trade. It isn’t usually in their nature. I guess welcome to the Peter Laviolette era, or something. Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins continue remaking their franchise. If you aren’t Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, don’t get too comfortable. In exchange for Neal, the Penguins got Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. I don’t know how Pittsburgh can argue they got the better half of this trade.
This is the second time Neal has been traded. The first deal, which brought him from Dallas to Pittsburgh, was an absolute steal for the Penguins, as they got Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski. Good thing the Pens fired the guy who pulled that off, and then replaced him with a guy who thought trading Neal for a couple of forwards from a team that has had no offense for seemingly decades.
Admittedly, Neal has missed time with injury the last couple of years, but last season he scored 27 goals and 61 points in 59 games. He has a 40 goal season to his name, and he’s only 26. He’s in the middle of a six year deal with a cap hit of $5 million, so there’s no problem there. All his stats show him as a very good, perhaps great, player. You can’t say it’s his teammates either, because he had success with the Stars.
Hornqvist has been, arguably, Nashville’s best goal scorer the last few years, but he’s never had more than 30 goals, and he set a career high in points last season with 53. He’s also 27, so he’s older than Neal. Spaling is 25, but he just set a career high in goals with 13 and points with 32. Combined, you can argue that these two don’t provide as much offense as Neal. Sure, they provide depth, which the Penguins need, but they should have gotten more for Neal.
The Predators have added the best offensive player they’ve had in a good long while. Maybe his numbers dip a tinge because of the change, but I feel that in fact he’ll probably be the rising tide that lifts all boats. Meanwhile, Hornqvist will probably play alongside either Crosby and Malkin, which will help, but he won’t be as good as Neal. Spaling will likely get stuck as a center on a lower line. The Penguins don’t save money, and they didn’t get better or younger. They’ll still make the playoffs, because they have two of the top five players in the league, but it won’t be because of this trade.