PITTSBURGH – The long-awaited trade deadline splash by Penguins GM Ray Shero finally happened Monday afternoon as the team sent defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas for James Neal and Matt Niskanen.
With Evgeni Malkin out for the rest of the season and Sidney Crosby‘s future still in limbo, Shero expressed an interest in finding pieces for his team that would help both this year and in the future. Malkin’s long-term injury allowed the Penguins to take on more salary that normally would have been possible and Shero used that flexibility to land two promising young players.
Both players acquired from the Stars have one year remaining on their contracts after this season before becoming restricted free agents.
From the Penguins:
The Pittsburgh Penguins have acquired forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen from the Dallas Stars in exchange for defenseman Alex Goligoski, it was announced by executive vice president and general manager Ray Shero.
Neal, 23, is in his third NHL season. The 6-foot-2, 208-pound left winger ranked third on the Stars this season with 21 goals and fifth with 39 points.
A native of Whitby, Ontario, Neal established career highs offensively last season with 27 goals, 28 assists and 55 points in 78 games. In 214 NHL games the 2005 second-round pick (33rd overall) has 72 goals and 131 points. He is a three-time 20-goal scorer.
Neal spent four seasons with the Plymouth Whalers (Ontario Hockey League), tallying 68 goals and 173 points in 187 games.
Niskanen, 24, is in his fourth NHL season. The 6-foot, 200-pound defenseman has posted six assists in 45 games this season. Niskanen’s best season came in 2008-09 when he led all Dallas defenders in scoring with 35 points (6G-29A).
The Virginia, Minnesota native was Dallas’ first-round selection (28th overall) in 2005. In 277 career games with the Stars, Niskanen tallied 16 goals and 82 points. Niskanen has three assists in 16 career postseason appearances.
Prior to joining the Stars, Niskanen spent two seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth where he scored 45 points (10G-35A) in 77 career contests.
Monday’s trade is a classic example of two teams trading from a strength to supplement a weakness. The Stars possess an abundance of left-handed wingers and have been actively searching for a puck-moving defenseman to quarterback the powerplay since the departure of Sergei Zubov several seasons ago.
Both Neal and Niskanen held out well into September this offseason before agreeing to two-year deals on the same day. As the Stars continue to search for new ownership, the structure of Neal and Niskanen’s contracts may have played a big role in their departure. James Neal’s cap hit is $2.875m but will be due $3.5m next year, while Niskanen’s cap hit of $1.5m is less than his actual 2011-12 salary of $1.75m.
Dallas is still actively trying to sign franchise centerman Brad Richards to a new extension and with financial limitations in place, cost-cutting without sacrificing core players was a high priority.
From the Penguins perspective, Alex Goligoski became expendable this season with the emergence of Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang. In our breakdown of the Penguins’ defensemen in early January, we discussed the trade value of Goligoski:
Goligoski got off to a roaring start by notching a career-high seven-game point streak to start the season, but his offensive production has slipped in the last two months as players have returned from injury, and his power-play time has plummeted. Albeit an effortless skater with a nose for the net, Goligoski has been prone to decision-making errors on the ice that force him to start questioning himself.
At the age of 25 in essentially his third NHL season, Goligoski still has room to develop and improve. Kris Letang was in a similar position in his career last year and struggled with many of the same growing pains. Letang has gone on to become an impressive two-way defensemen, and it’s hard to argue Goligoski doesn’t possess a similar upside. Would a team like Dallas with a surplus of scoring wingers be interested in dealing with Pittsburgh?
Goligoski’s heavy shot proved to be an upgrade over Paul Martin on a powerplay that’s missing Malkin and Crosby, but his decisions under pressure have been disastrous at times. With four defensemen ahead of him on the Penguins depth chart and a number of promising prospects working their way through the system, Goligoski’s true value to Ray Shero was in what he could fetch in a trade.
Almost every trade deadline preview this time of year stresses the need for one or more “puck-moving defenseman”. The demand around the league was predictably high for Goligoski, and it was just a matter of time until a team decided to offer Shero more than market value in return.
Neal will fit nicely on a Penguins team that needed size and scoring ability on the wing and should approach 35-goal potential as he continues to develop. His biggest issue is consistency, but that’s something Shero and Penguins feel they can work with him to improve.
Few players have the opportunity in their careers to play alongside one elite playmaker. Watching James Neal move from Brad Richards to Sidney Crosby has to feel unfair to other players around the league who will never lineup alongside a player of that caliber.
Niskanen can be seen almost as a diet-Goligoski, a smooth-skating defenseman that lacks physicality but fits in perfectly in the up-tempo, quick transitioning Dan Bylsma system. He can’t handle big minutes at this point in his career and he won’t need to. Niskanen will slot in as an affordable #5 defenseman behind Letang, Martin, Zbynek Michalek, and Brooks Orpik.
If Neal does excel enough offensively over the next season and a half to deserve more money than the Penguins can afford to pay him, Shero would still have something to show for the deal. Neal’s restricted free-agent status would make Pittsburgh eligible for substantial draft pick compensation should he choose to sign elsewhere.
Shero rarely makes a trade unless he sits in a position of leverage. With almost a dozen players out the lineup due to injuries and suspensions, it was hard to envision a scenario where Shero would have the upper-hand. With the Stars’ financial troubles unfortunately still a painful reality, Shero found a way to pull it off.