In a bid to shift the fortunes of a franchise that has had too many playoff failures of late, the Pittsburgh Penguins moved James Neal, one of the NHL's most consistent goal scorers over the past three regular seasons, to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forward Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling during the first day of Friday's entry draft.
It was an interesting and curious deal because Neal has been the primary trigger man on Evgeni Malkin's wing almost from the time he arrived in Pittsburgh in a trade with the Dallas Stars. There is some risk there. Neal and Malkin had formed a partnership on the ice and a friendship off the ice, so for better or worse, it could affect the team's dressing-room dynamic.
Neal had 61 points in 59 games last season and was a candidate for Canada's 2014 Olympic team. But didn't have a great playoff this past spring and all of the Penguins moves of late – bringing in Jim Rutherford as the new general manager; Mike Johnson as the new coach; and Rick Tocchet as the new assistant – are designed to get over the playoff hump.
Neal is two years into a six-year, $30-million contract, so there will be marginal cap savings for the Penguins, who inherit Hornqvist, with his $4.25-million annual cap hit and Spaling, a restricted free agent, who earned $1.5-million last season.
Hornqvist doesn't have the same mean streak that Neal does, but he does go to the front of the net and at different times, has been a strong finisher for the Preds. Hornqvist finished second on the Preds in scoring last season, with 22 goals and 53 points. Nashville is also in a serious organizational rethink, trying hard to become a better offensive team under new coach Peter Laviolette.
"These guys play the game hard. They play with an edge," Rutherford told reporters in Philadelphia Friday night. "They're great team guys that we have in our room. Some of the things we talked about, we have two players like that."
The deal saves the Penguins less than a $1-million per season on the salary cap, but Rutherford figured it might be the difference between adding a player in free agency and not being able to bid on one of the few scorers that remain available. Malkin has a long history with ex-Leaf Nikolai Kulemin and though Kulemin hasn't scored much lately in the NHL, that might be a good fit. It remains to be seen if they'll make a bid for Thomas Vanek, ex of the Canadiens, as well.
Rutherford said the conversations with the Predators had been going on for a week and there was talk at one point of making a bigger deal, but ultimately they decided to do what they could to get a deal done on the first day of the draft.