Penguins Update: Neal Deal a Steal – Pittsburgh Penguins – PenguinPoop Blog

Penguins Update: Neal Deal a Steal

When Penguins general manager Ray Shero acquired promising power forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen from Dallas last February for Alex Goligoski, there was no doubt he was anticipating good things.

“This is the hockey trade we’ve been looking for,” he declared with an air of expectation. “Neal’s a young, up-and-coming winger. His best days are ahead of him. Niskanen’s a really good young defenseman.”

Indeed, the trade looked like a good one on paper. While there was no denying Goligoski’s potential, Neal had topped the 20-goal mark in each of his three seasons with Dallas. The smooth-skating Niskanen logged a plus-22 as a rookie in 2007-08 and totaled a respectable 35 points the next year. As an added bonus, both players were in their early 20s.

However, things didn’t work out as planned. Struggling to justify the hype, the 6’2” 208-pound Neal managed just one goal in 20 games wearing the black and gold. Although Niskanen displayed occasional flashes, he looked to be no more than a depth defenseman. Meanwhile, the offensively gifted Goligoski was his usual productive self, piling up five goals and 15 points in 23 games with the Stars. Many Steel City fans were calling the trade a bust.

What a difference a year makes.

After being switched to the off-wing by coach Dan Bylsma during training camp, Neal arguably has been the Pens’ best player through a quarter of the season. A force in the corners and around the net, he busts his hump to create scoring chances and isn’t the least bit shy about firing the puck (a league-high 84 shots). Firmly established as one of the NHL’s premier snipers, the Whitby, Ontario native has racked up a team-best 12 goals—including six power-play tallies.

Given his track record, Neal’s stellar performance isn’t entirely unexpected. However, Niskanen’s play truly has been a revelation. Regarded as defensively weak by some experts, the former first-round pick of the Stars has emerged as the Pens’ most reliable blue-liner. Although he hasn’t put up big numbers (five points through 20 games), the mobile rearguard has played remarkably sturdy defense (plus-7), while displaying a surprising physical edge.

With no disrespect to Goligoski, who’s nursing a thumb injury after a so-so start, the trade may go down as one of the best in Penguins history.

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  1. Rick Buker's Gravatar Rick Buker
    November 24, 2011 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    Aw Krundle, what do you know? (Just kidding.) Your (very well thought out) points are well taken.

    I must confess I was not a huge Goligoski fan going into last season. I felt he was too small and too weak defensively–a point that was driven home when he was victimized twice on crucial goals by Maxim Lapierre in the 2010 playoff loss to Montreal. However, giving him his due, I thought he improved his battle-readiness and defensive-zone play 100 percent last year.

    I guess my best argument for the trade is to consider where the Pens would be if they hadn’t made it. Frankly, Sullivan has filled “GoGo’s” role on the power play quite nicely. Neal has meshed beautifully with Malkin and is finding the net consistently. Picture where the Pens would be right now without his 13 goals, not to mention Niskanen’s surprisingly solid work on ‘d.’

    I don’t think the Pens would be nearly as imposing …

  2. November 23, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Hmmm.. You may have lost me on the part where you said “may go down as one of the best”. One of the most important parts of the deal is that Neal’s contract is up this year. If he jumps ship for more money elsewhere and the Pens don’t win a cup this year, the trade could be considered a bust.

    Neal in his short career has been know as Mr. October. If he was playing baseball, that would be great. The fact that Neal couldn’t produce in the playoffs really scares me. 1 goal and 1 assist in 7 playoff games are not the numbers from someone considered one of the best trades. Neal is also a very streaky player. Last year in one of his streaks he had only 2 goals in a span of 31 games and was a -9. On top of that, you know how players perform their signing year.

    What we gave up was the Penguins ONLY puck moving defenseman and really the only defenseman other than Letang on the Penguins that could legitimately play the point position on the powerplay. Goligoski, like Neal is considered to have his best years in front of him. Dallas has Goligoski logging the second most minutes of ice time per game on the team, he is leading Dallas in powerplay minutes per game and has also been killing penalties. The broken thumb thing is holding him back right now.

    The trade is a good trade. Both teams got something they needed, while giving something up. The proof with Neal will come playoffs. We can re-hash this then!


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