This time of year in the NHL, there are rental agreements, and then there are what Penguins general manager Ray Shero repeatedly called "hockey trades."
Shero crafted one of the latter Monday, acquiring power forward James Neal and versatile defenseman Matt Niskanen from Dallas for defenseman Alex Goligoski.
"This is the hockey trade that we've been looking for," Shero said.
In other words, this wasn't a move rushed into being because the NHL trade deadline is bearing down Monday. Both incoming players -- who are expected to be at practice today -- are young, under contract through the 2011-12 season and even after that would be eligible for restricted free agency.
A lot of trades around this time traditionally involve playoff contenders acquiring veteran players who are eligible for unrestricted free agency after this season.
"This is a deal I would have done in the summertime or now," Shero said. "I believe it's a good hockey deal for us."
Neal, a native of Whitby, Ontario, is a 6-foot-2, 208-pound left winger who has logged his third 20-goal season, with 21 along with 18 assists this season, despite being just 23. Shero sees him as someone who could blossom into the kind of forward who could become a core forward along with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz.
The first three of that group were Penguins draft picks. Kunitz was picked up near the 2009 trade deadline when he was 29.
"This is really the first young winger we've gone out and gotten," Shero said of Neal.
Neal, a Dallas second-round draft pick in 2005, carries a salary cap hit of $2,875,000, Niskanen $1.5 million. Goligoski's is $1,833,333. Shero noted that he would not have been able to swing this deal if not for the fact that roughly $8 million in cap space opened when center Evgeni Malkin went on long-term injured reserve and had season-ending knee surgery.
"This might have been the year we didn't do anything," Shero said. "Hopefully, a good came out of a bad."
The trade was not based on any projection of whether Crosby will return this season from a concussion. Shero and Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk spoke sporadically for several weeks before finalizing the deal.
Dallas needed a puck-moving defenseman. Shero was loathe to part with Goligoski, 25, who has nine goals, 31 points in 60 games this season.
"A lot of teams have called about Alex," Shero said. "I made it clear I was not looking to trade him. Our defense was playing well.
"In the back of my mind, it had to be for the right forward."
Trading Neal allows the Stars to move Jamie Benn to his natural spot of left winger. Dallas executives apparently believe Benn has a bigger upside long term, although Neal will have the advantage of perhaps playing with one of the Penguins' world-class centers.
It's believed the deal originally was a one-for-one, but Shero persuaded Nieuwendyk to include Niskanen, 24, a former first-round draft pick who has been something of an enigma.
Penguins fans might remember him as the guy Crosby tossed around in a fight during a sloppy, rough-and-tumble 5-2 loss Nov. 3 in Dallas, but that's not his game.
"I didn't want to fight him anyway," Niskanen said.
At 21 and in just his second year as a pro, Niskanen, a 6-0, 200-pounder and a right-handed shot, became a regular with the Stars. He had two strong seasons, with seven goals, 26 points as a rookie and six goals, 35 points in 2008-09. He proved he can kill penalties and play the point on the power play.
His play and his production dipped to three goals, 15 points last season, and this season he has no goals, six points in 45 games and has been a healthy scratch at times.
"We're hoping whether it's just a confidence thing or just a change, [the trade] will be good for him," Shero said. "Hopefully he can get back to where he was earlier in his career."
Niskanen hopes so, too.
"I came in as a younger player, and things seemed to click really well early," he said. "I played with some great partners who kind of helped me along the way. The past two season, things didn't go as well as earlier. I struggled at times. I've had some better games lately."
Niskanen, of Virginia, Minn., played against Goligoski, another Minnesota native, from peewee on, including in college when Niskanen was at Minnesota-Duluth and Goligoski at Minnesota.
This trade doesn't preclude further Penguins moves before Monday's deadline.
Despite being publicly noncommittal in recent weeks, the Penguins have a genuine interest in acquiring winger Alex Kovalev, a former Penguin, from Ottawa.
Kovalev, 37, has 14 goals and 13 assists in 53 games with the Senators. His cap hit is $5 million, and he will be an unrestricted free agent this summer.
He has been harshly criticized in Ottawa for his inconsistent, often indifferent, work this season, although some attribute that to his handling by Senators coach Cory Clouston.
"We have some room to look for some other pieces," Shero said. "We'll let the dust settle a little bit."