Pittsburgh Penguins: Revisiting the James Neal Trade

During the 2014 NHL entry draft the Pittsburgh Penguins made a trade and it was a big one. They sent the goal scoring wing James Neal to the Nashville Predators for forwards Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist. I was not a fan of this trade when it happened and I’m still not a fan to this date. Hornqvist has been a positive addition to the Penguins and Spaling was simply a stopgap, but Neal’s presence has been missed on the ice.

Let me make something explicitly clear before continuing, when it happened I didn’t like this trade because the Penguins did not get enough of a return. General manager Jim Rutherford proceeded with this trade before fully evaluating his options and playing teams off of each other, despite having more than half of the league interested in the 40-goal scoring wing. Then there was the issue of the salary cap and Spaling’s need of a new contract, did I mention that Rutherford was told by his salary cap expert not to include him in the trade?

If you would have even mentioned this trade last season you were immediately shunned as Hornqvist was playing incredibly well alongside captain Sidney Crosby. Fast forward to the 2015-16 season and Hornqvist has been dropped to the Penguins third line and he hasn’t been playing well.

Here’s what Mike Johnston had to say about Hornqvist’s demotion.

No matter what line Patric Hornqvist is playing on he’s a straight line guy. He’s net front. He plays with energy, plays hard. He’s not going to change his game no matter who he plays with. With Hornqvist, he creates room for people. That’s what he does on the line.

Through 24 games, Hornqvist has four goals, four assists, is a minus -4 skater and has a corsi for of 47.9%. He’s proven to be ineffective alongside Crosby, who’s in the midst of a poor season as well, and Malkin. Now the Penguins are paying $4.25 million to Hornqvist as a third line player with Chris Kunitz taking up another $3.85 million, Pascal Dupuis accounts for $3.375 million and David Perron counts for $3.8125 million.

Pittsburgh has too many wings with large paychecks and sans Perron, none have played well this season. Between those four wings, they have scored just 27 points this season while accounting for $15.2875 million against the cap. Meanwhile, Neal has 18 points in 25 games while counting for just $5 million against the cap.

When Rutherford traded away Neal he admitted there would be a scoring void on the roster. In an effort to replace him, Rutherford brought in Perron and Phil Kessel and while both have been solid additions there’s still something missing.

Penguins Changing Narratives

When Neal was traded to Nashville the public’s reaction was mixed. Some loved the move, others saw the team going in circles, and I’ll admit I’m a part of the later group. There’s a very good quote that’s been almost universally accepted in the hockey universe and here it is.

The team that gets the best player wins the trade

The meaning behind this is that one All-Star player will always be better than two good players. Pittsburgh didn’t get the best player in the trade when it happened and they’re paying the price now.

Neal didn’t have the best reputation around the league and even inside Pittsburgh many were not a fan, but his production is hard to question. He scored 89 goals over 199 games with the Penguins, which included one 40-goal season. Some look at him as a dirty, aggressive and prone to taking bad penalties, but look at what he’s been doing in Nashville. There isn’t a peep about any of these concerns and some penalties being called on him are simply based on reputation alone.

He’s got one of the best shots in the entire NHL, but that was not all Neal brought to the Penguins. He was a vastly underrated playmaker and his chemistry with Malkin cannot be understated. Neal wasn’t the knucklehead that a few of his suspensions would indicate and the impact he made on the ice was usually a positive one.

Take a look at Hornqvist last season and you heard nothing but praise for the Swedish winger. One columnist even had this to say about his performance on and off the ice.

Still, what’s been there from Hornqvist has not only silenced anyone who blindly criticized the James Neal trade this summer — this was my stance in support of it back at the NHL Draft in Philadelphia — but it’s also been enough to make you wonder if he might not change the broader mindset of this organization.

Yes that’s right, one player who has never even been invited to an All-Star game is going to completely change the entire Pittsburgh Penguins organization, this was written on October 18th, 2014. Now fast forward to the 2015-16 season and analysis like this is now following Hornqvist.

 There is still a long time left in the season but through 24 games Hornqvist is one of the Penguins biggest disappointments.

In the 2015-16 season, the Penguins are struggling to score goals even with all of their high priced wings and centers. What’s the solution to this problem? Many are going to jump to trading star players, but look at how the Penguins found themselves in this situation.

If the Penguins don’t win the Stanley Cup, the season is a disappointment and everything needs to change. Players are on very short leashes right now and Rutherford’s shown a willingness to wheel and deal, but this hasn’t been working. Call it a sinking feeling, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the last season that Hornqvist was in Pittsburgh.

Concluding Thoughts

The Penguins lost this deal and they lost it badly. Some might argue that Kessel is a Penguin because Spaling was part of the deal, but he’s an average player. The Maple Leafs and Penguins deal did not hinge on Spaling and moving him was a salary dump more than anything.

James Neal wasn’t as bad as he got credit for, he’s having a good season in Nashville without a legitimate number one center and it’s the Penguins loss. He was quickly made a scapegoat for one bad playoff run and his contract and desirable production made it easy for the Penguins to trade him. Neal didn’t want to leave, but the Penguins forced him out.

He always had a shaky locker room reputation, but from all reports this was completely overblown by the media. Hornqvist might be a great fit in the Penguins locker room, but he’s no sniper.

The Penguins lost this deal and they’re paying for it. A lot of aspects of Neal’s game are missing from the current lineup and there aren’t any solutions in their system.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave your comments below or tweet me anytime @MPityk_PIT