Pens trade Neal to Predators for 2 forwards
PHILADELPHIA — The reconstruction of the Penguins has begun.
With majority co-owner Ron Burkle on hand for the NHL draft, the Penguins dealt right wing James Neal, a talented sniper whose playoff performances and temper outburst sometimes troubled the organization, to the Nashville Predators on Friday for right wing Patric Hornqvist and left wing Nick Spaling.
“We wanted to change the mix of the team,” general manager Jim Rutherford said.
A shift from a top-heavy roster to one more balanced appears to have been triggered.
Hornqvist, 27, is a former 30-goal scorer. He never had the luxury of playing with a gifted playmaker during his time in Nashville.
Neal is a gifted perimeter scorer. Rutherford's assessment of Hornqvist indicated that the Penguins wanted a player stylistically different from Neal.
“We wanted to get a player with an edge, someone who goes to the net, works the corners,” he said.
Hornqvist possesses strong advanced stats and puck possession numbers.
Neal was stunned by the trade.
The 26-year-old told the Tribune-Review that he never requested a trade and did not see this one coming. He said he had no indication the Penguins were looking to move him.
“It's a real bummer,” he said.
Center Evgeni Malkin likely will consider the trade a bummer, too.
Malkin and Neal are close friends and linemates. Neal's 40-goal campaign during the 2011-12 season coincided with Malkin's MVP season.
Rutherford said he is concerned Malkin won't be pleased. He also said he will aim to please Malkin when free agency begins Tuesday.
“You're always concerned about that with your top players,” Rutherford said. “This gives us a better chance to do something on July 1 that might be suitable to Geno.”
Nikolai Kulemin, an unrestricted free agent who is a former 30-goal scorer, could be available. Rutherford said he wouldn't identify any free agent targets, but Kulemin is one of Malkin's best friends.
However, because they have unloaded Neal's $5 million annual salary cap hit and because the NHL announced Friday that the cap will increase to $69 million next season, the Penguins suddenly will become players on Tuesday.
“I'm not going to name any names,” Rutherford said. “But we think we can get somebody who can fit.”
Neal will be remembered as one of the most gifted snipers in team history. He led the NHL in power-play goals during the 2011-12 season and formed a chemistry with Malkin.
Neal also was known for having a surly personality. He has been suspended three times in his six-year career. The Penguins are eager to develop a stronger locker room next season, and Rutherford didn't deny that eliminating Neal could help.
“Everything comes into play,” he said.
Rutherford said he spoke with about 15 teams regarding Neal and that “most” of those conversations were initiated by other teams. He had been speaking with Nashville for about a week. “We had a few offers,” Rutherford said.
The Penguins are adding two players for slightly more than what Neal makes. Neal is due $5 million annually during the next four seasons. Hornqvist is set to make $4.25 million during each of the next four seasons. Spaling is a restricted free agent and earned $1.5 million last season. He likely is in line for a small raise.
Spaling, 25, scored a career-high 13 goals last season. He is a strong penalty killer and figures to project on the Penguins' third line with Brandon Sutter.
“We like that he can play all three positions,” Rutherford said.
Getting Hornqvist, though, was the key to the trade.
“He's just an all-around player,” Rutherford said. “That's what we wanted.”
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