By: Meesh Shanmugam (@HockeyMeesh)
When the Penguins traded James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, the move was both expected and shocking. The general reaction is a mixed bag, depending largely on how you felt about Neal’s on-ice and off-ice attitude vs. how you felt about his scoring ability (40 goals, 40 goals!!).
Here’s a look at the pure stats being moved both ways:
James Neal, Age: 26, $5 mil. cap hit for next 4 years
Patric Hornqvist, Age: 27, $4.25 mil. cap hit for next 4 years
Nick Spaling, Age: 25, RFA
Let’s start with what we know about what the Penguins had. James Neal is a one-time 40-goal scorer with enough talent to hit that mark again. He had a very slow start with the Penguins after being acquired from Dallas, only scoring two goals in 27 games (including seven playoff games).
Neal’s first full year with the Penguins was fantastic. He recorded 81 points in 80 games, proving himself to be a major threat on the powerplay and alongside Evgeni Malkin. The Penguins were quickly ousted that year in the playoffs by Philadelphia. Though Neal had six points in five games, the memories from that series will be Neal head-hunting several players, including Claude Giroux, and earning a one-game suspension.
In the lockout-shortened season, Neal performed well. He missed eight games, but still recorded 36 points in 40 games (and only 26 PIM). He finished that season with 10 points in 13 playoff games.
This past season is when Neal really drew a significant amount of undesirable attention to him. His final stat line was 61 points in 59 games, with 55 PIM. His season was a mess though. It started with the mysterious “wiffle ball” injury as the season kicked off. Issues later would include a concussion, kneeing Brad Marchand in the head (five-game suspension), recklessly slashing and then cross-checking Luke Glendening in the head, and several other oddly-timed offensive zone minors. He reportedly took issue with the #AskNeal hashtag as the internet went into a full-out attack on him and supposedly had other “behind-the-scenes” issues, though nothing was publicly confirmed. Add in a four-point (two-goal) performance in 13 playoff games this year, and many in Pittsburgh had turned on Neal. The publicity of his issues certainly did not help his value. The situation was at the point where Neal was almost certainly moving, one way or another.
Was the return enough though? The first odd thing to look at is the draft day trade that doesn’t even involve any draft picks. A mid-round pick from Nashville certainly would have helped even out the balance of talent in this deal.
So what did the Penguins get?
Aside from some injury issues during the lockout year, Patric Hornqvist has been a reliable first-line winger who has played at least 76 games in every other season. His goal totals tend to average out in the mid-20s range with point totals around 50. There is no question he is a drop-off from Neal. He does do some things that Neal didn’t excel at though. Hornqvist is the type of player that will plant himself in tough areas to make a play (without the retaliation). He is often found in front of the net, almost like a younger Chris Kunitz.
One of the bigger issues that I felt the Penguins had was how they battled in the slot and in front of the crease for loose pucks and “garbage goals.” The Penguins did go to the net; there is video proof of that. But they were big on fly-bys and lost most battles in front. Teams like Los Angeles succeed because of how dominant they can be on some of those loose puck battles in front. Hornqvist is the type of player that immediately gives the Penguins a new threat in front that they need. I would expect his goal and point totals to increase slightly with the higher end talent of the Penguins and the push for offense. In Mike Johnston’s shoot-everything system, Hornqvist will play a very valuable role and find quite a few loose pucks to send home. I think it’s fair to expect 60 points from him depending on who he gets to play with.
Meanwhile, Spaling slots in as a dependable depth forward after receiving 3rd line wing time in Nashville. This past season was his best, recording 32 points in 71 games. He can take on some penalty kill time (avg. 1:31/gm last season) and basically play anywhere on the 3rd and 4th lines. I don’t expect much more than 25-30 points from him again this season, especially based on the lack of talent he will likely be around.
The Penguins will likely lose money on the cap with this trade once Spaling is signed as an RFA, but they do add two capable NHL players at a limited additional cost. Therefore it’s not a cap-saving move, but it does help with the average money available to sign others.
Based on my expectations, the point totals that Neal vs. Hornqvist & Spaling can produce will likely even out. There will also be fewer “distractions” without Neal, so there is some sense in this trade from the Penguins point of view. However, Neal is definitely the best talent in this trade by far and it’s hard to ignore that. Nashville wins this trade from purely a talent perspective. It’s a draw with all other concerns involved, especially from Pittsburgh’s viewpoint.
It would have been nice to get more, but given Neal’s reputation and the push to move him, the Penguins’ GMs did a decent job of helping their team out. Sometimes, it’s about much more than talent.
Thanks for reading!!