Friday, June 27, 2014
Pens deal James Neal to improve character
By Scott Burnside
PHILADELPHIA -- In the midst of an offseason of tremendous upheaval, the Pittsburgh Penguins were determined to change the complexion, the character of their team following another disappointing playoff exit.
And so it wasn’t a complete surprise that on Friday winger James Neal was dealt to the Nashville Predators. The question, though, is whether the Penguins believe they may have added by subtraction with the deal because, in terms of straight-up skill, the Predators ended up with the best hockey player in the deal that saw Patric Hornqvist and center Nick Spaling go to Pittsburgh.
Neal, when he’s on his game, is a 40-goal threat and instantly becomes the Predators’ most dangerous offensive weapon. The 26-year-old should help the Predators’ power play and he is under contract through the 2017-18 season at a relatively modest cap hit of $5 million.
Did we mention when Neal is on his game?
Because there are times when he’s not on his game -- as in during most of the Penguins’ past three postseason runs -- when he was only occasionally engaged.
He had just two goals in 13 postseason games this spring and was held without a point during a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals.
Worse, Neal has a penchant for taking undisciplined penalties, some of which have led to suspensions.
Will that matter to an offensively-challenged Predators team that has missed the playoffs two straight years and will have a new coach behind the bench for the first time in franchise history next fall in Peter Laviolette?
Perhaps this trade will represent something of a wake-up call for Neal, and he certainly will be counted on to be a front-line performer in Nashville as opposed to a complementary player in Pittsburgh, where he was able to exist in the shadow of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Indeed, assuming Pekka Rinne returns to form after an injury-plagued 2013-14 campaign, Seth Jones continues his evolution and Shea Weber is rolling along in Norris Trophy form, Neal may be the kind of addition that propels the Predators back into the playoffs.
As for the Penguins, Hornqvist, 28, will fill some of the offensive vacuum created by Neal’s absence and, if he ends up playing with Malkin or Crosby, he could return to the 30-goal plateau for the first time since 2009-10. But Hornqvist, who has the distinction of being the very last person selected in the 2005 draft, is not particularly speedy. And with a cap hit of $4.75 million through the 2017-18 season, he doesn’t represent much in the way of savings for a Penguins team that has significant salary-cap issues.
Spaling, a restricted free agent, will add depth down the middle and had a career-best 13 goals for the Predators last season.