The return of James Neal to Pittsburgh on Sunday for the first time as a member of the Nashville Predators is not a tale of a prodigal son coming home to a place where he was loved, championed and adored.
Will he be cheered? Who knows. Will he be booed? Eh, maybe. Neal wasn’t exactly the most liked player around the Penguins at the time of his draft day trade to Nashville. If Jason Spezza can get an ovation from Ottawa fans when he came back with Dallas after he demanded a trade, anything is possible.
But as we come up upon ‘Neal Bowl II’ (the Penguins beat the Predators 3-0 in October in Smasvhille) it has become increasingly clear that the deal of Neal to the Preds for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling has worked out pretty well equally for both sides.
Said SB Nation:
James Neal will also return to Pittsburgh for the first time since being traded to the Predators in the offseason. Will he show his old squad what they're missing? Or will Patric Hornqvist continue to show the Penguins they made the right choice in pulling him out of Nashville?
One game a trade judgment does not make (framed as Yoda would say). But when a player returns to play his old squad, it offers a wonderful time for reflection … so let’s take a look.
Neal’s point and goal numbers for Central Division-leading Nashville have been OK at best this year. He has 28 points and 16 goals in 42 games. Those put him well behind his point-per-game pace with the Penguins a year ago.
But … his ability to score easily and quickly with the flick of his wrist is a dynamic the Predators haven’t had maybe ever. Look at this goal he scored to beat the Capitals on Jan. 16. Hand-eye coordination and precision. Plus – though he scored a goal before that play as well – he really didn’t do much that game at all. But that’s how he plays, he doesn’t look like he’s trying, but he finds open areas, and you have to be aware of him. If you’re not this will occur.
Also, Neal has been excellent in puck-possession for Nashville this year with a plus 15.8 on-ice Corsi 5-on-5 per behindthenet.ca. Even coach Peter Laviolette snuck in a bit of a Corsi reference without actually doing so to the team’s official website.
“When he gets on a march on the offense, he’s one of those guys that can unleash 10 to 15 attempts at the net per game. With that, he’s got a goal-scorer’s ability. He’s taken down big minutes up front 5-on-5, and he’s been a contributor on the power play as well.”
Admit defeat Peter. Say Corsi!
Plus he’s added a bit of personality that the usually-vanilla Predators have lacked. Neal drives a white Ferrari. His hair is perfectly coiffed. He got stung a bit in Pittsburgh for being a bit of a ‘me’ guy and ripped by former NHL ref Paul Stewart for being not being his type of hockey player. But, so what. He’s a hockey player. He makes $5 million per-year and he enjoys it. And he owns his attitude, which is better than pretending.
Said Lavy again:
“Sometimes there’s a process that goes into feeling out your new team and feeling out your new place, and we’re past all that with James. He’s been terrific in the locker room and as a leader overall.”
Anyway … when you move to the Pittsburgh side of the ice, Hornqvist and Spaling have given the Pens the versatility they need.
As injuries have ravaged Pittsburgh’s lineup, Spaling has at times found himself playing wing-man with Sidney Crosby. He’s also moved up and down and played third line or penalty kill. Though Spaling doesn’t score a ton, this type of versatility is valuable over an 82-game stretch where players get hurt and forwards are sometimes forced to play out of position.
Hornqvist’s 30 points in 36 games are the highest point-per-game pace of his career. And his Corsi-on 5-on-5 per behindthenet.ca is 11.55. Scoring? Check. Puck possession? Check. The only issue involves his all-or-nothing style and his health, which we brought up many months ago and has been an issue this season. Plus, the Penguins are still one of the Eastern Conference's elite.
So yeah – a win-win big trade? Bizarre. Now, will Neal get booed? Is the sky blue? Does it really matter? Both teams are better off anyway.
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