When Jim Rutherford took over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the summer of 2014 he was inheriting a team that was coming off of one of its more disappointing postseason exits, having blown a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers in the second-round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Even though the roster contained a trio of superstars in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, it was still a badly flawed team that was short on depth (it had absolutely none), had little salary cap room to maneuver with, and had a lot of work to do before it could again be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
To begin re-tooling his roster Rutherford’s first major trade was to ship James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
With the Penguins and Predators meeting in the Stanley Cup Final beginning on Monday, and with Hornqvist and Neal still playing prominent roles on their respective teams, we should take a quick look back at that trade to see how it has all shaped out.
I want to start with this: I will be the first to admit that when the trade was initially completed I thought the Penguins were going to come out on the short end of it because the return just didn’t seem to make a ton of sense. But hey, we all make mistakes.
It wasn’t that Hornqvist wasn’t any good or didn’t have any value, it just didn’t seem to be the type of return that was going to change much. Not only was Neal one of the NHL’s elite goal-scorers at the time (his 0.49 goals per game average in his three full seasons with Pittsburgh was tied with Evgeni Malkin for third best in the NHL during that stretch) but the return itself did not really seem to fix any of their issues. They were not getting any meaningful salary cap savings (it actually cost them more money after Spaling’s contract extension), they were not getting any younger, they were not doing anything to increase their depth. It just seemed like they should have been able to get more, or at least accomplish more, given the type of player they were trading. Goal scorers like Neal had proven to be during his time in Pittsburgh are not exactly easy to find.
It simply seemed to be a trade that was going to be, at best, a lateral move for a different type of player.
Hornqvist is a human wrecking ball that does most of his work around the front of the net, while Neal is a pure sniper with one of the NHL’s most lethal shots that is capable of scoring from anywhere in the offensive zone.
When you look at their production since the trade, there is almost no difference in what they have done for their new teams in both the regular season and playoffs.
Offensively, they have been virtually the same player. Neal has been a slightly better goal scoring (which is to be expected given the skill set of the two players)
But sometimes a “lateral” move for a different type of player is exactly what a team needs.
In this case, both teams.
From a Pittsburgh perspective, Hornqvist has given them the type of net-front presence they previously lacked before the trade. Even though his style of play is loathed by opposing goaltenders and fans, it is more of an organized, controlled chaos. He is not prone to taking the type of retaliatory nonsense that used to plague the Penguins toward the end of the Dan Bylsma era, making almost any game they were losing devolve into madness. Neal could at times be lured into that sort of game by opponents. That trade, and several of the roster changes (as well as the promotion of Mike Sullivan and his “just play” mantra) that followed over the past two years have all but eliminated that from their game. It has helped. A lot.
But that isn’t to say that Nashville didn’t get a lot out of this, too. While Pittsburgh ended up getting a Holmstrom-like presence to cause havoc around the net, the Predators were able to pick up the type of top-line goal-scoring threat they had been lacking for years. Before acquiring Neal the Predators had only ever had four different players top 30-goals in a single season. Only one scored more than 31. Remember, this trade was before Filip Forsberg turned into the goal-scoring force that he is now. While Neal’s goal-scoring has dropped a bit since the move away from Pittsburgh he is still scoring goals at close to a 30-goal pace over an 82-game season. His 0.35 goals per game average with the Predators is still among the top-25 players in the league and that is nothing to overlook.
When looking at it strictly from a numbers perspective neither team really comes out that far ahead three years later. It has turned out to be a deal that for different reasons has benefited each team equally.
Sometimes that is all you are looking for in a trade.