James Neal Trade A Winner For Penguins

PITTSBURGH PA - FEBRUARY 23: James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates on the ice before the start of the first period of the NHL game against the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center on February 23 2011 in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

In obtaining James Neal, the Penguins addressed a vital need at a reasonable cost.

Watching the Penguins play over the last few weeks has been frustrating. A draining pool of offensive talent and an string of losses can strain a team, its fanbase and even management.

With that in mind, general manager Ray Shero pulled the trigger on a nice little piece of business Monday, acquiring James Neal and Matt Niskanen from the Dallas Stars for Alex Goligoski. The trade, while odd on a few levels for the Stars, makes perfect sense for the Penguins.

As mentioned at the top, it has been frustrating watching the Penguins recently. This is not only because they have hit a nasty slump sans Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Mark Letestu, Paul Martin and now possibly Brooks Orpik. No, it's not just that; it's that a lot of the things the Penguins focus on as a team, they're doing right.

Getting the puck deep. Holding possession. Putting plenty of shots on target.

But they're getting little in the way of results. Monday's game against the Capitals was an excellent example of this

Pittsburgh looked good for much of the game. The Penguins held the puck for long periods, battled the Capitals along the boards, and hit everything that moved; in a nutshell, they were on "their game." Shots? They were 39-24 Pens.

It was as good as you could've hoped for without winning. Final score? 1-0 Capitals.

So what happened? At this point, it's simply a lack of skilled players available. The Penguins have called up a cavalcade of reinforcements from their AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre. Some, like Brett Sterling, have flourished. But the fact remains that even striking gold with one cannot replace what has been lost.

The Pens needed to do something and, thus, Shero went to the market.

By most accounts, the Penguins killed it in this trade. James Neal, despite only being 23, is already a respected power forward in today's NHL. Only holding a cap hit of $2.875 million and not being an unrestricted free agent for some time, Neal immediately addresses the Penguins' historically prevalent issue of mediocre scoring on the wings.

Is Neal on his own the answer? No. But when Kunitz, Crosby and, eventually, Malkin return to the ice, you begin to see a solid offensive base built around that core and Jordan Staal. Matt Niskanen, meanwhile, is more of a toss-in. A once-highly-touted defenseman, Niskanen fell off of the map a bit this year and found his way into Marc Crawford's doghouse. 

But the trade wasn't about Niskanen. It was about getting a power forward like Neal, a player who can finish. And to get a player like Neal, the Penguins had to trade Alex Goligoski. Much has been made of Goligoski's potential, and Goligoski certainly has skill. The problem is that he has always read the game a bit slow, telegraphing passes and probably being a little susceptible in the defensive zone.

In Pittsburgh, playing as a fifth defenseman who had been highly touted for some time, Goligoski's mistakes were highlighted. Every little thing done wrong was magnified by the younger Kris Letang's phenomenal season. That doesn't make Goligoski's deficiencies any less real, but they made it abundantly clear why, despite being on pace for  40+ points and a ridiculous +/- rating, Goligoski was so far down the depth chart.

The Penguins dealt their fifth defenseman for a top-line or, at worst, second-line winger who can score and will only get better. Oh, and they got a fifth defenseman in return, albeit an inferior one. Most would've expected the Penguins to have sent an additional asset along with Goligoski to get Neal. Instead, they got reinforcements.

In Dallas, various motives could have prompted this move beyond addressing an on-ice need. Owner Tom Hicks has been actively looking to sell the team and the future, at this point, is murky. Less salary on the books tends to be slightly more desirable to a new owner. Shedding $4 million from the books also makes it more likely the Stars could sign the talismanic Brad Richards in the offseason.

Really, the Stars did need some skill on the blue line. Stephane Robidas, who has played out of his mind over the last two years, gets some assistance offensively. It's amazing the depth on defense that the Penguins currently boast when Goligoski can jump onto a competent roster and immediately become one of the team's focal points on defense.

Dallas was in the market for a player like Goligoski and Shero knew it, smelled blood, and went for the kill. Call it a harsh introduction for neophyte general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, who overpaid for a good player. Both teams got what they wanted, Pittsburgh just got more of it.

The deal may end up as a win for both squads, or Goligoski could even break out and become a premier defenseman. He has most of the tools, it's just a Ryan Whitney-like package that needs to knit itself together. Until that happens, a tip of the cap is in order for Ray Shero, who executed a great trade.

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