In most cases, a legitimate evaluation of a hockey trade takes a few years. With draft picks and young players being included in many deals, it takes time for them to develop into an NHL player. However, in the case of the deal that brought the “Real Deal” James Neal to Pittsburgh, it might as well be classified as a steal for the Pittsburgh Penguins already. It has been two years and six days since Neal was acquired along with defenseman Matt Niskanen by the Penguins in a trade that sent defenseman Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars. At the time, Goligoski had shown some promise offensively, but was very inconsistent. Neal had at least twenty goals in each of his first three seasons before being traded to Pittsburgh and Niskanen had some consistency issues, just like Goligoski. After the trade occurred, Penguins fans knew that Neal could develop into a possible 30-goal scorer. They also felt that a change of scenery could benefit Niskanen, who was a first round pick in 2005. In fact, Niskanen was sometimes a labeled as a “throw-in” in the deal. He proved to be more than just that (See: Pascal Dupuis). With Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby out in Neal’s first season as a Penguin, a ton of pressure was put on him to produce offensively. Neal struggled to fit in at first by notching one goal and five assists in twenty games for the Penguins in the 2010-11 season. Niskanen’s point total was only one shy of Neal’s in 18 games played for Pittsburgh that season. In fact, Goligoski was the player who performed the most in his new jersey that season by recording 5 goals and 10 assists in 23 games with the Stars. However, things changed dramatically the next season.
The season began with the highly-anticipated return of Malkin and Crosby. It took a while for Crosby to return to the lineup, but the Penguins found out how lethal of a goal-scorer Neal was when he was placed on a line with Malkin and Chris Kunitz. The line was one of the best in the NHL as Malkin went on to win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player. Neal certainly was a key component of that line as well though. Before the season, he said that he was aiming for 30 goals on the season. Well, he ended up having a career season with 40 goals and 41 assists in 80 games with the Penguins. He was named an NHL All-Star with Malkin as well and eventually signed a six-year, $30 million contract with Pittsburgh to remain with the team for the long-term. Niskanen also found a new home in Pittsburgh, as he finished the season with 4 goals, 17 assists, and a 9 plus-minus rating in 75 games with Pittsburgh. Goligoski had a respectable season as well, finishing with 9 goals and 21 assists in 71 games with Dallas. He was signed to a four-year, $18.4 million contract by Dallas in January of 2012. However, Goligoski’s point total actually dropped 16 points from the previous season he played with the Stars and Penguins. Neal’s point total increased by 36 points in 2011-12 while Niskanen’s increased by 11. Things were starting to look very good for general manager Ray Shero and the Penguins in this trade. However, it got better somehow.
After another NHL lockout lasted over 100 days, a shortened 48-game season was in store for Goligoski, Neal, and Niskanen. Neal quickly showed that last season was not a fluke, as he currently has the second-most goals in the NHL with 13. In addition, his eight power-play goals and four game-winning goals are both ranked first in the NHL. Not too shabby, right? Niskanen has also enjoyed some early success in 2013 by notching 3 goals and 2 assists in 12 games. That puts him on pace for 10 goals and 7 assists in the shortened season. That goal total would be a career-high if Niskanen can keep it going. Unfortunately for Dallas, it has not been a great year for Goligoski. He was a healthy scratch for the first time in three years on February 6th and has yet to score a goal for the Stars in 19 games for the Stars. He is on pace for 22 points in 47 games. Let’s take a look at the total numbers since the trade occurred on February 21, 2011:
LW JAMES NEAL
Games played: 120
Cap Hit: $5 million per season through 2017-18
D MATT NISKANEN
Games played: 105
Cap Hit: $2.3 million per season through 2013-14
D ALEX GOLIGOSKI
Games played: 113
Cap Hit: $4.6 million per season through 2015-16
After looking at the production of the three players, would you want to acquire Neal and Niskanen for Goligoski? The numbers speak for themselves. The Penguins acquired a fan favorite and 40-goal scorer in Neal, who will be a great player for years to come. As far as Niskanen and Goligoski go, the Penguins are receiving some good production from Niskanen for exactly half of Goligoski’s cap hit. Although Goligoski has better offensive numbers than Niskanen, you have to look at the big picture. Niskanen can play better defense and can play on the penalty kill as well. The Penguins are already getting good offense from Kris Letang and Paul Martin this season. A good defender who could contribute a little bit offensively was needed and Shero got a good one in Niskanen. In addition to the trade, Shero did a great job in signing Neal and Niskanen to affordable contracts. Neal and Niskanen combined make $7.1 million this season while Goligoski will make $4.2 million by himself. By replacing an offensive defenseman in Goligoski with a puck-moving defenseman with the ability to kill penalties in Niskanen for half of Goligoski’s cap hit, the Penguins do not downgrade much at all. Goligoski will most likely end up with more points than Niskanen in his career, but Niskanen is developing into a solid defenseman who can play good defense in addition to his decent offense. The deal maker for Pittsburgh though is obviously Neal, who is easily the best player of the three. The Penguins needed a young long-term goal scorer and they got that in Neal. Neal and Niskanen for Goligoski was a steal of a deal in more ways than one.
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