By Jim Diamond
Leading up to this weekend’s NHL Draft, Nashville Predators general manager David Poile made no secret of his desire to land a top-six forward. He gave the impression that he was looking to acquire that player in exchange for the 11th pick.
Poile definitely acquired the top six forward he was looking for when he made a trade for Penguins winger James Neal Friday night. To get a forward of Neal’s caliber, the price was high. But the 11th pick did not go to Pittsburgh. Instead, it was forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
Neal has the scoring punch that the Predators desperately need. He had 27 goals in 59 regular season games played last season and posted his career-high 40 goals in 2011-12.
The 26-year-old Neal has four years left on his contract at $5 million per season. He plays with a big deal of snarl to his game, both approaching and going over the edge at times.
During Neal’s time in Pittsburgh, he played a lot of games against new Predators head coach Peter Laviolette, whose most recent job was as the bench boss of the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh’s cross-state rival.
The big problem here is that he will not be playing on Evgeni Malkin’s wing in Nashville. Instead of playing with one of the most talented centers in the world, Neal will have the likes of Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson, Craig Smith, or Calle Jarnkrok getting him the puck.
Laviolette plans to play a much more up-tempo offensive game than was the norm in Nashville under previous head coach Barry Trotz. Of Hornqvist’s many talents, he is not blessed with great skating speed.
However, he is fearless and just about all of his time in the offensive zone is spent with his heels planted just outside of the crease with his backside in front of the opposing goaltender. In addition to numerous slashes at his legs and gloves to the face, he puts himself in harms way setting up screens and looking for deflections on slap shots from Shea Weber.
Like Neal, Hornqvist has four years remaining on his contract with a $4.25 million cap hit per season.
Hornqvist was popular with the Nashville fans and served as a mentor to young Swedish players like Jarnkrok and Filip Forsberg when they came to the team.
Spaling was a serviceable player who spent most of his time on the third and fourth lines. As a second round pick, 58th overall, in 2007, Spaling put up solid numbers in junior, but never scored much in his time with the Predators. He posted a career-high 13 goals this past season.
Seen as a Trotz type player and as a pending restricted free agent, Spaling was expendable on a team with a fair amount of third and fourth line types.
With coaching and player changes, it is no secret that Poile has been looking to reverse the fortunes of the Predators. All in all, this looks like a good deal for the Predators, but Neal is going to need some help in succeeding. He is not just going to appear on the scene and get back to being a 40-goal scorer without his teammates getting him the puck and creating some room for him.