Cross Checks: Patric Hornqvist
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.
Shane Doan, Phoenix Coyotes: It hasn’t been a banner season offensively for the venerable Coyotes captain, but Doan is lighting it up now with an eight-game points streak, during which he’s collected 13 points. The Coyotes, by the way, were back in the playoff bracket and just six points out of the Pacific Division lead with a game in hand as of Friday morning. Doan’s continued strong play will be crucial to the Coyotes’ playoffs hopes.
Patric Hornqvist, Nashville Predators: Another player whose first half wasn’t exactly what he was hoping for is Hornqvist, who led the Predators with 30 goals last season. The Preds have been up and down in 2010-11, but are currently on an up-swing with four straight wins. Hornqvist is also starting to roll with goals in four straight games, five goals in all, including two in a big win over Los Angeles on Thursday. As of Friday, the Predators were fourth in the Western Conference.
Andrei Kostitsyn, Montreal Canadiens: It’s been difficult times for the Habs of late. Defenseman Josh Georges is out for the season with a knee injury and the offense has gone south, as the team has fallen from first in the Northeast Division to the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. There’s not much help coming from Kostitsyn, who has scored once in his past 16 games. Maybe the Habs got rid of the wrong Kostitsyn? Andrei’s brother Sergei is thriving in Nashville.
James Neal, Dallas Stars: While the Dallas Stars continue to lead the tough Pacific Division, it isn’t all warm and fuzzy in Big D. The Stars are hoping Neal will rediscover his scoring touch in the second half -- he has scored once in the past 12 games, even though he has a respectable 14 goals on the season. Neal had a breakout season in 2009-10 with 27 goals.
Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks: Most of the rookie of the year attention has centered around the goalies Michal Neuvirth (suddenly chilly) and Sergei Bobrovsky, and flashy Carolina center Jeff Skinner. But folks in San Jose have been banging the drum for another skilled pivot named Logan Couture. The Guelph, Ontario, native has taken over the rookie scoring race with 21 points as of Friday morning. Couture also leads all rookies with four game-winning goals and is the only first-year player with a plus rating (plus-6) among the top five rookie point producers. Perhaps more impressive: The 21-year-old, selected ninth overall in the 2007 draft, leads the talent-laden Sharks in goals (14) and has scored six times in his past five games.
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres: The Buffalo Sabres are slowly edging back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture (they were in ninth place, five points back of eighth as of Friday morning). If they’re going to get all the way back, they’ll need Vanek to keep doing what he’s been doing the past couple of weeks, and that’s contributing on a regular basis. Vanek, talented yet prone to long stretches of silence, has scored seven times in his past nine games and chipped in 10 points over that period. For a team desperate for leadership, Vanek is leading in the best way possible: by example.
Patric Hornqvist, Nashville Predators: Hornqvist was one of the feel-good stories last season; the last overall pick of the 2005 draft (selected 230th overall) led the playoff-bound Predators with 30 goals. This season, not so much. Hornqvist has just one goal in his past 14 games. That paucity of scoring from a key member of the Preds’ limited arsenal may explain why Nashville finds itself clumped uncomfortably with more than half the Western Conference fighting for a playoff spot.
Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs: We have always resisted the temptation to join the group that considers the Leafs’ acquisition of Phil Kessel from Boston (for what now looks like back-to-back top five draft picks) a colossal blunder. But that temptation grows stronger by the day. Kessel’s scoring struggles, along with the Maple Leafs’ woes, also grow. Kessel has scored just once in his past 10 games and has gone without a goal in seven. Not coincidentally, the Leafs have won just twice in their past eight outings.