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Neal deal a move for future

| Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

After spending time with Penguins general manager Ray Shero a few weeks ago, an NHL agent predicted a busy trade-deadline period wouldn't pass without Shero making a move.

Correctly, the agent noted, Shero always makes a move at or before the deadline.

The move Shero made Monday was unlike any during his five-year tenure with the Penguins.

For the cost of defenseman Alex Goligoski, the Penguins landed another defenseman slotted for the No. 5 spot, Matt Niskanen.

However, the real prize they acquired from the Dallas Stars was left wing James Neal - a big, strong, cannon-shot left winger who has scored at least 20 goals in each of his NHL seasons.

The difference between Neal and past deadline-period wingers acquired by Shero - Gary Roberts (2007), Marian Hossa (2008), Bill Guerin (2009) and Alexei Ponikarovsky (2010)• Each of those guys had played in the Stanley Cup playoffs before coming to the Penguins. Neal has not.

Then again, Neal is only 23 - the same age as center Sidney Crosby.

When assessing this latest deadline-period deal by Shero -- which drew near universal praise from fans and media on social media sites -- don't pay too much attention to the weeks ahead.

Sure, Neal will be expected to help the Penguins solidify their standing as an upper-echelon Eastern Conference club - a standing they've maintained despite playing most of the past three weeks without players who have provided about half of their goals.

A short-term look at Neal is not one the Penguins are hoping to take. He, like Niskanen and Goligoski, will play next season as the last on a current contract.

Still, the Penguins didn't deal Goligoski - their leader in game-winning goals (four) and third with 17 power-play points - because of what Neal might do for them now. Shero made this move because there is potential for Neal to become the long-sought scoring winger to play with Crosby over an extended period.

"There's not many of these young power guys in the game," Shero said.

A legitimate power forward is more rare than a puck-moving defenseman, and the Penguins still have those in the NHL (Kris Letang, Paul Martin) and in the pipeline (top prospect Simon Despres).

The addition of Neal will make the Penguins even more of a Stanley Cup favorite next season.

As for the rest of this season, well, not even the infusion of his offense will make them a legitimate Cup contender if Crosby - as seems increasingly likely - fails to play again because of a concussion.

The Penguins' home game against the Washington Capitals last night marked their 20th in a row without Crosby, who was the NHL leader in goals and points and a runaway MVP favorite at the time of his injury.

His head still isn't right, and the longer that continues to be the case the greater the chance he will not play until next season. There is a fierce debate within the organization between the business and hockey operations sides as to if Crosby's should be shut down now.

If he is medically cleared to return, nobody will tell Crosby he can't play again this season.

If he does, the Penguins' late-season additions could include a depth defenseman, a power-forward winger, the world's finest hockey player, and a handful of NHL regulars - wingers Chris Kunitz, Arron Asham and Mike Comrie; rookie center Mark Letestu; and Martin - who are currently hurt.

Even without center Evgeni Malkin, who is out for the season, they would have the look of a championship team. The loss of Goligoski, a more offensive-minded player, shouldn't damage their stellar penalty kill and stout team defense. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is enjoying his finest season amid whispers of MVP candidacy.

The trade deadline is 3 p.m. Monday, and Shero has enough cap space - because Malkin's $8.7 million hit is off the books with him on the long-term injury list - to make another move or two.

That agent Shero spoke with a few weeks ago checked back in last night. His prediction: Shero isn't done dealing.

Star turns

A look at the newest Penguins -- left wing James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen -- who were acquired Tuesday from the Dallas Stars for defenseman Alex Goligoski:

James Neal

Age: 23

Height, weight: 6-2, 208

Shoots: Left

Contract status: Expires after next season

Salary-cap hit: $2.875 million

This season/career: 21 goals, 39 points, plus-8 in 59 games/72 goals, 131 points, minus-8 in 214 games

Notable: He has never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs. ... He has scored 11 goals and is a plus-6 on the road this season.

Quotable: "He's got the skill to make plays as well, but really he likes going to the net and getting those dirty goals - but if he gets open ice in the offensive zone, he can score from anywhere." - defenseman Matt Niskanen

Matt Niskanen

Age: 24

Height, weight: 6-0, 200

Shoots: Right

Contract status: Expires after next season

Salary-cap hit: $1.5 million

This season/career: 0 goals, 6 points, minus-1 rating in 45 games/16 goals, 82 points, minus-5 rating in 277 games

Notable: He has been minus-27 since finishing his rookie season with a plus-22 rating. ... He fought center Sidney Crosby in a game at Dallas on Nov. 3, 2010.

Quotable: "A change might be good for him. We have a good coaching staff here and pretty positive people. We're all U.S. guys, so good for Matt. Hopefully he can get back to where he was earlier in his career." - General manager Ray Shero


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