PHILADELPHIA – When the Pittsburgh Penguins fail, heads roll. Dan Bylsma’s did. Ray Shero’s did. Now, the first player is paying for the team’s playoff struggles, as winger James Neal was traded by the Penguins to the Nashville Predators at the NHL Draft for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
Neal had two goals and two assists in 13 playoff games but failed to tally a goal in his last six games while earning 24 penalty minutes. He had 61 points in 59 regular-season games, playing on Evgeni Malkin’s wing.
Neal has three more seasons on a deal that pays him $5 million annually, and the Penguins moved him out before a no-trade clause kicked in during the 2015-16 season.
Thus ends an odd few weeks for the Penguins and Neal, in which the forward had to publically deny he requested a trade during the season. Perhaps sensing that, teams made their pitches to new Pittsburgh GM Jim Rutherford, and GM David Poile of Nashville had the best fastball.
Hornqvist has four years left on contract with cap hit of $4.25 million. Spaling in a restricted free agent who made $1.5 million last season.
What do they give Pittsburgh? Hornqvist gives them a space-clearing net front presence they could use, especially on the power play. He can crack 30 goals again with Malkin and Crosby. Spaling is the type of lower-line grunt and character guy the Penguins have lacked down their lineup. That said, his possession numbers under Barry Tortz weren’t example exemplary, with a negative-corsi rel of 3.2 percent last season.
Neal, 26, gives the Predators some badly needed goal-scoring on right wing, having been a point-per-game player in two of the last three seasons. He’s tallied at least 20 goals in every season of his career. Like it or not, he also brings a nasty streak to a Predators team that can use more snarl.
(Who knew that Neal and Matt Niskanen would be ex-Penguins and Alex Goligoski would still be a Dallas Star in 2014?)
This Neal trade is symbolic of a grander theme for the Penguins under Rutherford: Yes, he's good. But we can be better. We need to be better.
Which should make the Penguins move to replace those goals something to watch ...