Kovacevic: Neal trade not pretty, but who wants that?
PHILADELPHIA — The restructuring of the Penguins' front office now complete, the reconstruction of their roster formally began with Jim Rutherford's shot heard round the hockey world Friday night at the NHL Draft, as announced from the on-stage podium of one Gary B. Bettman.
“Is it OK if I announce a trade?” the commissioner screeched to the Wells Fargo Center crowd, apparently — and hilariously — expecting something other than the belligerent booing he and everyone else had been hearing all evening.
Nope. They're Flyers fans. They don't come equipped with a second sound, and they aren't exactly accustomed to hosting hockey events in June.
The commissioner began, anyway.
“The Nashville Predators trade Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling …”
He paused, followed by a striking second or two of silence for the suspense.
“ … to Pittsburgh ... ”
“ … for James Neal!”
And yes, I'm describing the reaction on this side of the commonwealth, although it was easy to tell from the instant tidal wave of social media aimed this way that it was pretty much the same back home.
I get it, too. Really.
Neal was a deservedly popular player in Pittsburgh, with one 40-goal season and 89 goals in 199 games and his three full seasons. He's a big guy who can fly. He's an underappreciated passer. He's tougher than most might know. He wasn't anywhere near the knucklehead some of his suspensions would suggest, I can tell you from getting to know the man, and he wasn't any kind of problem in the locker room that couldn't have been solved with tougher leadership.
And way, way above all that, Neal was a wonderful fit alongside Evgeni Malkin. That can't be underscored enough. Rutherford has essentially acknowledged that Jussi Jokinen won't be stopped from heading into free agency July 1. That will mean bye-bye to both of Malkin's wingers.
Could Beau Bennett be one?
He'll need to eat a ton of Wheaties this summer.
Could Rutherford add another?
It sure came off that that way when the GM openly stated he'll search for a free agent “suitable” for Malkin.
But Hornqvist could be part of that, too, and he'll be coming to a team with more offensive talent and a more offensive system than anything he could have imagined in Nashville.
It's funny, but they say that the team that gets the best player wins the trade. I'm not so sure. I won't be surprised if this trade is a W for the Predators, even far into the future. Maybe a decisive one. But trades are judged individually only by fools. They should always be about impact on the team. And from that standpoint, upon hearing more about the incoming players, I'm not at all down on this.
Stay with me here.
Digging beneath the numbers, Hornqvist and Spaling are much more the grit/character types the Penguins have correctly identified as their primary missing element.
Hornqvist, a 27-year-old right winger, is no trademark tough guy, to say the least. In his only four full seasons with the Predators, he scored 30, 21, 27 and 22 goals, and his penalty-minute totals were about the same. He's a skilled guy to the bone. But he's also got a penchant — no, passion — for scoring those goals right near the crease. He's a relentless corner presence. He's got an innate defensive conscience. And, if you dig really deep into the advanced statistics that Rutherford promised he'd apply, he's got excellent ratings for puck possession.
On that last count alone, Mike Johnston will love him.
Spaling, a 25-year-old left winger, is the obvious throw-in. His goal totals with Nashville were 10, 9 and 13. But he's also been a solid penalty-killer and punishing hitter, two other areas of need for the Penguins.
Now, listen to Rutherford when I asked about the grit/character stuff: “These guys play the game hard. They play with an edge. And they're great team guys. They'll be good in our room. And we got two players like that.”
No, this isn't pretty. It sure doesn't come with the mega-splash of some of Ray Shero's trades.
But let me ask: Is pretty what the Penguins were missing?
This team has no trouble scoring, certainly not in the regular season. But it did have trouble scoring within 10 feet, which is where goals come in the playoffs. Or executing with structure. Or showing any semblance of puck support. Or creating space for Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
I'm not suggesting Hornqvist and Spaling are the answer.
But I am suggesting that we saw ample evidence that the old roster wasn't the answer, either. And anyone who thought change would come painlessly was being naïve.
This is a painful step but a vitally necessary one.
Hold those boos.