Pittsburgh Penguins And the Return On James Neal

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About one and a half seasons ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins traded James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Spaling was traded to Toronto last summer as part of the Phil Kessel deal. What have the Pens really gotten in return for one of their best pure goal scorers?

I remember the day James Neal was traded like it was yesterday.

I was sitting in the recliner in my family room watching the draft. I was a little on edge because I knew there was a good chance he’d get moved, but I’d seen some reports saying otherwise and I was desperately hoping those were accurate. When the announcers said the words “we have a trade,” I leaned forward in my chair, almost so far that I fell out.

“The Pittsburgh Penguins trade…” I stood up, silently chanting “no, no, no” over and over. “James Neal to…” I didn’t even hear where he had been sent. Before the sentence was finished I was out the front door, dialing my phone.

I called my best friend, who is also a Penguins fan, while wandering barefoot circles around our front yard crying. She didn’t answer, so I left a message for her that was mostly just babbling incoherently through my tears about the trade. My neighbors were having an early Fourth of July party, and all the little kids who were in the driveway playing basketball had stopped and were staring at me.

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When my friend called back, she asked me what team he’d been traded to. I told her I had run away before they had said on TV. By now I was in the fetal position on the deck in the backyard. She called me pathetic and hung up. I went inside, chugged a beer, and returned to my vigil outside. I didn’t come in until my parents bodily marched me back inside at sundown.

Extreme? Looking back at it, yes. It was a serious overreaction, especially given how well he’s fit in with the Nashville Predators. Back then, he was my favorite player on my favorite team, but by now I’m mostly just happy he’s doing well in his new city and even has a leadership position.

When the Penguins sent him west, they got forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling in return. On the first day of “Free Agent Frenzy” this past summer, Spaling was moved in the trade that brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh. 

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If you look at it on an individual basis, there’s no doubt that Kessel is a better all-around player than Neal. Better speed, better playmaking, and slightly less likely to knee a Bruin in the head. That’s always a plus… I guess.

Kessel has struggled somewhat in his transition to the black and gold, but that was to be expected. As good as he is, the Pittsburgh system is pretty different from Toronto’s and clearly took him a little time to get used to. At the start of the season he bounced between Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s lines – not too shabby either way – but the frequently changing lines didn’t allow for much stability.

I know, I know. He’s a professional and he should be able to adapt to things like that, especially by this point in his career. The Penguins have been anything but consistent in any regard this season, including with line combinations, and Kessel’s doing the best with what he’s got available. As the season has progressed, he’s become one of the more consistent goal scorers on the team.

Jan 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) reacts after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 2, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) reacts after scoring a goal against the New York Islanders during the first period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Pittsburgh media has been fairly kinder to him than Toronto’s so infamously was, and I’m sure that’s helping him feel more at home in his newer locker room. His mistakes are criticized but nowhere near to the extent they were magnified in Toronto. If that frees his mind up a bit to focus more on hockey, that’s great.

Recently he seems to have found his stride again and has scored some very pretty goals. Hopefully, he can keep that momentum going. At any rate, I fully believe that Kessel will be a more effective long-term asset than Neal or Spaling would have been.

(Neal still wins in the ‘Better Ginger Beard’ category, though.)

Now let’s take a look at Hornqvist. He was one of the most popular guys in Nashville, both in the locker room and with the fans. So far he’s made the same impression in Pittsburgh, which is more than could be said about the polarizing Neal.

Since Brandon Sutter’s departure to Vancouver, Hornqvist seems to have taken over the role of unofficial hype man and you can tell how much the team misses that attitude whenever he’s out of the lineup.

But other than a great personality, what did we really get? Hornqvist is invaluable in front of the net, true; he’s not afraid to get right in the goalie’s face and use his body as a screen. The Penguins have gotten many goals that way, and regardless of how much his name shows up on the scoresheet he’s made an impact on probably twice as many goals.

Meanwhile, Neal is a “pure goal scorer,” a phrase the Predators loved to use when talking about their coup in landing him. Most of his goals are a lot prettier than Hornqvist’s, but when it comes down to it, a goal’s a goal.

Nov 17, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Patric Hornqvist (72) attempts to shoot the puck against Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk (40) during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 17, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Patric Hornqvist (72) attempts to shoot the puck against Minnesota Wild goalie Devan Dubnyk (40) during the second period at the CONSOL Energy Center. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

The problem is that Hornqvist is almost as much of a pest as Neal is. I’d like to say that he’s less hotheaded and actually thinks before acting, but obviously that’s not always true. He takes a serious amount of penalties, a lot of them unnecessary.

That being said, he might be the closest thing the Penguins have to an agitator, if not an enforcer. He’s not afraid to get in opponent’s faces or stick up for teammates, which often helps set the tone for the team – a big thing especially with the Penguins, whose mental strength is the real make-or-break factor in most games.

In the end, I would argue that Hornqvist and Neal pretty much balance each other out. Getting Spaling too was just a bonus that helped us land Phil the Thrill. So, thanks James. I still miss you, but I’m good with the guys we’ve got.