Penguins' Trades For James Neal And Alex Kovalev Were Clear Winners

PITTSBURGH PA - FEBRUARY 23: James Neal #18 of the Pittsburgh Penguins warms up before 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 comparison to other teams' NHL trade deadline moves, the Penguins came out way ahead in their trades for James Neal, Matt Niskanen and Alex Kovalev.

On the day after the NHL trade deadline, every hockey outlet quickly compiles its obligatory "Deadline Winners And Losers" feature, prefaced with the even-more-obligatory disclaimer, "We know you can't really name winners and losers the next day, but ..." and proceeding to do exactly that. It's the official sports trade deadline equivalent of that awkward guy at your office starting a sentence with "I'm not racist, but..."

While we certainly can't precisely foresee the eventual impacts of deadline rental players or the draft picks so often exchanged for them, we can judge deadline deals the next day based on the perceived value exchanged in individual deals versus other deals made around the same time. For example, if two rebuilding teams each make a trade with a contender, and one yields a second-round pick and one yields a third-round pick, the second-rounder is still worth more in the trade, even if the third-round selection eventually turns into a star while the second-round player never makes the NHL.

Judging the Penguins' trade deadline on this principle - comparing the value the Pens gave up and received versus other teams' comparable trades - yields only one possible conclusion: Ray Shero absolutely nailed both of his deadline deals.

When I say "deadline," obviously, I'm referring to the Penguins' two trades in the week leading up to the deadline: sending Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars for James Neal and Matt Niskanen, and sending a conditional seventh-round pick to the Ottawa Senators for Alex Kovalev. Let's compare the Penguins' moves to two seemingly comparable deadline deals: the Los Angeles Kings trading for the Edmonton Oilers' Dustin Penner, and the Washington Capitals trading for the New Jersey Devils' Jason Arnott.

James Neal is a 23-year-old power-forward-type left winger who's scored 24, 27 and 21 goals in his last three NHL seasons (the 21 being the current season in progress). He has one year remaining on his contract worth $3.5 million but carries only a $2.875 million cap hit for the 2011-2012 season, after which he will be a restricted free agent (meaning if any team signs him in free agency, they'll have to give up significant compensation, essentially meaning Neal will stay under the Penguins' control).

Dustin Penner is a 28-year-old power-forward-type left winger who's scored 17, 32 and 21 goals in his last three seasons (the 21 also being this current season). He has one year remaining on his contract worth $4.25 million with a $4.25 mil cap hit, after which he will be an unrestricted free agent.

For one year and one partial season of Penner, the Kings traded Colten Teubert (a 20-year-old defensive prospect drafted 13th overall by L.A. in 2008), a first-round pick in 2011, and a conditional second-round pick in 2012. For Neal (a comparable player to Penner who's five years younger, a lighter cap hit, and not Unrestricted after just one more season) and defenseman and former first-round pick Matt Niskanen, on the other hand, the Penguins traded only Alex Goligoski.

The difference between what the Kings gave up for an established power winger versus what the Penguins gave up is absolutely staggering. While Goligoski certainly carries less risk than Teubert (who is projected to be a top-four-type defenseman but hasn't cracked the NHL yet), Goligoski is five years older than Teubert and eligible for restricted free agency after the 2011-2012 season. Penner is slightly bigger than Neal and has a Stanley Cup under his belt, but was also very publicly criticized for his effort by former Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish two seasons ago. Also he's five years older than Neal and is likely exiting his prime, and he's eligible for unrestricted free agency after next season. How can a year and several months of Penner net a top defensive prospect and two high draft picks, while Dallas had to include another NHLer along with Neal - who's statistically comparable to Penner but younger and cheaper - just to receive Alex Goligoski?

Likewise, Washington's deadline acquisition of Jason Arnott was mildly praised by the aforementioned hockey media, as the Caps acquired the veteran center for the seemingly-reasonable cost of a second-round pick and grinding forward David Steckel. Again, however, when we compare this to the Penguins' trade for Alex Kovalev, the values given up by the contending teams are wildly out of whack.

Kovalev is 38, Arnott is 36, and they're both unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. Kovalev comes with a $5.0 mil cap hit for the current season, while Arnott comes with a comparable $4.5 mil. At the time of the trade, Kovalev had 14 goals and 13 assists this season through 53 games; when Arnott was dealt, his statline included 13 goals and 11 assists in 62 games. Obviously, the allegations of Kovalev's lack of effort that dogged him throughout his time in Ottawa and Montreal clearly lessened his perceived trade value, while Arnott's size and ability to play center likely earned him more suitors than Kovalev leading up to the deadline. But how can Kovalev only be worth a seventh-round pick while Arnott - in the midst of an even more horrid statistical season - yielded a second-rounder and a useful bottom-line NHL forward?

For what it's worth, in his last three postseasons (all with Montreal), "Doggin' It" Kovalev posted 11 goals and 10 assists in 22 games, while "Physical No. 2 Center" Arnott, in his three postseasons with Nashville, managed five goals and one assist in 15 games, never advancing past the first round. Surely, Kovalev's defensive reputation and cap hit limited his value. (Kovalev did reportedly have "as many as three suitors" in the past month, but Ottawa eventually admitted that it was really just Ray Shero and one other suitor, rival GM "Mryan Burray," who was actually Bryan Murray talking in a fake high voice.) But Arnott's cap hit is nearly as high as Kovalev's and his recent offensive production hasn't been any better. Grabbing Kovalev for a seventh-round pick was another unambiguous win for Ray Shero.

Ultimately, Alex Goligoski might blossom into a star "puck-moving defenseman" (my new favorite dead-horse of a term), and Alex Kovalev might burn out while Jason Arnott helps the Caps to a Cup Final. But neither of these potential outcomes would change the fact that the Penguins' trades for Neal, Niskanen and Kovalev were, based on the prices set by the current NHL trade landscape, clear wins. The trades made on the day of the deadline clearly came with higher price tags than the ones Shero made last week, and while we could certainly quibble about the specific merits of Dustin Penner vs. James Neal or Arnott vs. Kovalev, the Penguins gave up so much less in their trades than the Kings and Capitals did in their respective deals, it's almost unfathomable.

We can definitively say, even 24 hours after the deadline, that the Penguins are trade deadline winners. And yes, that'll still be true even a week from now when Neal and Kovalev collide in practice and both somehow require Tommy John surgery.

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