James Neal, Matt Niskanen finally in Pittsburgh and ready to play

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Ever since Monday, James Neal and Matt Niskanen must have felt like they were living their own version of “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” They were both traded on Monday evening in exchange for ex-Pen blueliner Alex Goligoski. Upon hearing of the trade, the Pens arranged for a flight that night to get the pair of ex-Stars to Pittsburgh as soon as possible. The plan was to have them gear up for a practice on Tuesday to get acclimated to their new teammates and coaching staff before entering the line-up for tonight’s game against the Sharks. Well, like Robert Burns said, “The best laid plans of mice and men…”

The good news is they finally arrived in Pittsburgh. The bad news? It was a day late. At least Penguins coach Dan Bylsma is keeping a sense of humor about the whole ordeal:

“Head coach Dan Bylsma joked that he hoped they “didn’t think they got traded to the Devils.” Ironically, the Devils were on the road Tuesday night – facing the Dallas Stars.

“We want them here,” Bylsma said on Tuesday. “And they wanted to try and get in a car and get here so they could be here for practice (Tuesday), but it just wasn’t plausible with the weather.”

Neal and Niskanen finally arrived in Pittsburgh late Tuesday afternoon. They went straight to CONSOL Energy Center where they quickly got a physical and had a shortened practice with Bylsma and assistant coach Todd Reirden.”

With all of the injuries the Penguins have had up front to their high-end skill players, James Neal’s arrival couldn’t come soon enough. Evgeni Malkin is out for the year and Sidney Crosby is still recovering from the concussion he received over the first couple of days of 2011. Any time a team loses that kind of firepower, they will welcome any help that is on the way. James Neal and his 21 goals this season are exactly the kind of help the Penguins need right now.

In Neal, the Penguins will get a 23-year-old winger who has already scored 20+ goals three different times in his career. Obviously, the Penguins have to be ecstatic that they were able to finally add a capable scoring winger to go along with their superstar center duo. If the Whitby, ON native produces like he has thus far in his career, the Penguins may have finally found the answer at wing that they’ve been looking to find for years.

It’s no secret that the Pens will be looking to him to add a shot of adrenaline into an offense that has been anemic as of late. The horrible fact for Penguins fans is that their team hasn’t scored more than 3 goals since a 4-1 victory against the Detroit Red Wings. Unfortunately, that was back on January 18. In the month since then, the Pens are averaging 2.1 goals per game. Obviously, that’s not going to get it done.

Upon his arrival in the Steel City, Neal is saying all of the right things after his initial meeting with the Penguins coaches.

“I want to do the same thing I’ve done throughout my career, and obviously that’s put the puck in the net. There’s no added pressure to do that. Hopefully, I’ll find a way.”

I’m sure Ray Shero hopes he’ll find a way as well.

Hall (barely) beats MacKinnon for first Hart Trophy

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Being that Art Ross and Ted Lindsay winner Connor McDavid wasn’t even a finalist, it’s clear that being indispensable to your team factored heavily into the 2017-18 Hart Trophy voting.

With those unspoken parameters in mind, it makes sense that the MVP race ended up being so close between runner-up Nathan MacKinnon and winner Taylor Hall. Anze Kopitar ranked a distant third, but he could take comfort in being a finalist and also taking home his second Selke.

Sometimes you need to dig deep into “With or Without You” stats to realize how much a player stands above his teammates. You merely need to glance at the gap between Hall’s scoring (93 points, sixth-best in the NHL) and the next highest-ranked Devil (Nico Hischer with 52). Hall clearly dragged the Devils to an unlikely playoff berth, scoring that many points in just 76 games.

Nathan MacKinnon, meanwhile, finished with 97 points in 74 contests, yet he enjoyed a bit more help as Colorado’s top line was rounded out by fantastic wingers in Mikko Rantanen (84 points) and Gabriel Landeskog (62).

Now, the trickier part is figuring out if McDavid deserved to either win it or at least be a finalist. Ultimately, the PHWA viewed Hall as the “player adjudged to be the most valuable to his team,” no doubt weighing a playoff appearance in their decision:

As you might expect, the deeper voting is quite interesting. Kopitar narrowly edged Claude Giroux for third place, while there’s an interesting list of players who managed a single vote: Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Victor Hedman, and Eric Staal. Drew Doughty got a fourth place vote while Hedman receive one fifth, yet Hedman ended up the Norris winner.

During certain seasons, the Hart Trophy is an easy call. This was one of the tougher years to truly pinpoint a top season, but the beauty for hockey fans was because there were so many great choices.

However you feel about who should have been the actual winner, Taylor Hall generated an absolutely brilliant season.

For a player who was traded for flawed reasons and blamed far too often for his teams’ failings, it must be awfully sweet to receive such high recognition. It can’t hurt that this award came after his first-ever postseason appearance, either.

Naturally, Hall has his eyes on the sort of celebration that Alex Ovechkin is enjoying right now, but Hall’s 2017-18 season was “a long time coming” in its own right.

And, yes, the Oilers must weep at the thought that they voluntarily gave up an opportunity to deploy the 2018 Hart winner (Hall) and the 2018 Art Ross winner (McDavid) on the same team.

GM of the Year George McPhee adds another award for Golden Knights

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George McPhee of the Vegas Golden Knights continued a big night for the franchise as he was named 2017-18 General Manager of the Year during Wednesday’s NHL Awards show in Las Vegas. Earlier, Gerard Gallant won the Jack Adams Award for top coach, William Karlsson was named winner of the Lady Byng and captain Deryk Engelland took home the Mark Messier Leadership Award.

The NHL’s 31 GMs and a panel of League executives, print and broadcast media voted on the award following the conclusion of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Using the NHL’s expansion draft rules to his advantage, McPhee made shrewd deals to add draft picks and impact players while creating the franchise’s first-ever roster. Success came right off the bat and the Golden Knights ended their inaugural season by becoming the first modern-era expansion team from the four major North American professional sports league to win its division. By advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, Vegas became the third team in NHL history to win multiple playoff rounds in their first season.

McPhee was presented with the award by actress Lynda Carter and Nicklas Backstrom, the player he drafted in fourth overall 2006 while GM of the Washington Capitals.

Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Winnipeg Jets and Steve Yzerman of the Tampa Bay Lightning were the other finalists this year.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Pekka Rinne finally wins first Vezina

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After being a finalist three other times and serving as the Nashville Predators’ top goalie since 2008-09, Pekka Rinne finally won his first Vezina Trophy.

Rinne delivered an outstanding season, going 42-13-4 with a 2.31 GAA, a sparkling .927 save percentage, and eight shutouts. During his previous Vezina finalist finishes, Rinne finished second (in 2010-11 and 2014-15) and third (in 2011-12).

For much of this past season, Andrei Vasilevskiy seemed to be the frontrunner for the Vezina, and he finished with strong numbers. Still, a sputtering finish allowed Rinne to pass him by.

It seemed like the Vezina voting essentially came down to Rinne, Vasilevskiy, and “everyone else.” Connor Hellebuyck ended up emerging as the third finalist, edging plenty of quality choices among the rest of the pack.

Actually, as you can see from the voting, Vasilevskiy didn’t even finish second. This might be a good time to note that NHL GMs vote for the award instead of players or the PHWA.

As you can see, 10 goalies received at least a third-place vote. Vasilevskiy didn’t get a single first-place one, while non-finalists Frederik Andersen and Marc-Andre Fleury grabbed one No. 1 nod apiece. Interesting stuff.

Much like Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist, Rinne is a goalie who managed to win a Vezina despite an inauspicious start to his career. Rinne was selected in the now-non-existent eighth round (258th overall) in 2004 and now owns a Stanley Cup Final appearance, 311 wins, and a Vezina. Not too shabby.

Kings’ Kopitar comfortably wins second Selke

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For the second time during his already splendid NHL career, Anze Kopitar won the Selke Trophy.

The Los Angeles Kings star edged perennial Selke finalist Patrice Bergeron and breakthrough pivot Sean Couturier. Kopitar’s first Selke win came during the 2015-16 campaign, while Bergeron won it last year.

It’s interesting to take a look at the voting via the PHWA. As you can see, Kopitar won by a fairly comfortable margin, while the jousting for second place was skin-tight.

Kopitar’s been a Selke finalist during four of the last five seasons, so he’s becoming a perennial candidate, too.

Aleksander Barkov is clearly climbing the ranks as one of the NHL’s best two-way forwards, which is what the Selke generally amounts to. (You’ll note, though, the wording of the award specifically calls out “the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game.”)

Did hockey writers make the right call on the Selke here?