Did the Penguins get enough for James Neal?
In terms of pure talent, probably not. But the Penguins need to change. It’s starting. Don’t complain.
The Penguins sacrificed the superior player to increase depth. Neal’s biggest output in Dallas was 27 goals. He was seen as a bottom-six forward by some in the Stars’ organization. Neal’s 40-goal season and his selection as first-team NHL All-Star in 2011-12 was the residue of skating with Evgeni Malkin and getting power-play time with a gang of superstars.
Perhaps Patric Hornqvist can be elevated in similar fashion. Hornqvist topped out at 30 goals with Nashville, scoring 22 last season. Hornqvist doesn’t have Neal’s release, but he gets to the dirty areas. The Penguins desperately need that.
Hornqvist is also seen as a potential locker-room catalyst. That’s something else the Penguins desperately need.
Bonus round: Hornqvist has an umlaut in his name. WE ARE MOTORHEAD!
Nick Spaling is also something the Penguins need, and perhaps most desperately of all: A legitimate NHL bottom-six forward.
Brandon Sutter is legit. Otherwise, the Penguins’ third and fourth lines were mostly populated by borderline NHL players and some who flat-out do not belong in the league. Pet projects like Joe Vitale, vanilla too-smalls like Brian Gibbons and washed-up locker-room stooges like Craig Adams.
Spaling isn’t going to fill the net. But he’s 6-foot-1, 201 pounds. He looks the part, and plays the part. He belongs in the NHL.
Spaling is a restricted free agent, but isn’t going anywhere. Hornqvist’s cap value is $4.25 million, Neal’s is $5m. The Penguins added only a minimal cap hit while adding an extra player. Not bad business.
The Penguins had a strange draft: Their first four picks were forwards. Is that allowed?
Fan reaction to the Penguins’ new regime has been mostly muted. But the vocal minority protests every move via 140 characters. Some aren’t happy unless they’re unhappy.
New GM Jim Rutherford isn’t going to have the same outlook at his predecessor, Ray Shero. After five years of playoff disappointment, that’s good. Whether Rutherford and new coach Mike Johnston have the right outlook will have to be proven.
A tip of the hat to the dear, departed Neal. Most of the Pittsburgh hockey media didn’t like him. I did. He’s a cynic who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. A man after my own heart, in other words. If I ran into Neal among the citizens, he didn’t big-time. Definitely a go-to guy. I’m going to miss him.
The Penguins will miss him, too. In ways that go beyond his skill and finishing.
Neal played with edge. Some would say dirty. That’s OK. This past season’s Penguins may have been the softest team in franchise history. It was institutional softness. The Penguins were assembled to be soft, coached to be soft and were soft in the execution.
Neal took some ill-advised penalties, certainly. But when Neal would run somebody or stick somebody or crack somebody after the whistle, I was glad somebody was swimming upstream against the madness. When Neal kneed Brad Marchand in the head, I was glad he got the right guy.
Neal didn’t play with Malkin, his usual center, in the playoffs. His power-play time got slashed even though he scored 11 PPGs during the regular season and led the NHL in that category just two seasons ago. Yet, in minimizing personal circumstances, Neal still gave 110 percent.
Neal was a great player for the Penguins. He will be a great player in Nashville.
But change had to start somewhere.
Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).