James Neal is stopped by Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky in the first period at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus in April.
By Dave Molinari/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PHILADELPHIA -- He spoke, Jim Rutherford reckons, with about 15 teams interested in acquiring right winger James Neal.
Most conversations were initiated by other clubs. Several included serious offers.
The most appealing came from Nashville and Rutherford accepted it Friday night, sending Neal to the Predators for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
"We like Hornqvist as an all-around player," Rutherford said. "We really like Spaling. He can play all three positions on the third line."
A popular hockey adage holds that the team getting the best player wins the trade, and Neal almost certainly is the most talented of the three players involved in this one. Rutherford, though, seems intent on altering the makeup of his club, and suggested the Nashville deal was a step toward that.
"We were just trying to change the mix of our team a little bit and get a little bit different type player [in Hornqvist]," Rutherford said.
The trade of Neal and the likely departure of Jussi Jokinen via free agency mean that second-line center Evgeni Malkin can expect to have two new linemates next season.
Rutherford, though, suggested that salary-cap space opened by the Neal trade will make it possible for the Penguins to be more aggressive when free agency begins July 1, and that they might well land a linemate for Malkin then.
"By doing this, it gives us a better chance to do something on July 1," he said. "That may be suitable for [Malkin], too. ... We think we'll get somebody who will fit on his line."
Toronto winger Nikolai Kulemin, who has had considerable success playing with Malkin in Russia, will be an unrestricted free agent next week and seems to fit that description.
Hornqvist is a top-six talent who likely will get an audition alongside Malkin in training camp, and the Penguins' first-round draft choice, Finnish winger Kasperi Kapanen might well turn up on Malkin's wing someday, too.
The Penguins had Kapanen, who is 5 feet 11, 180 pounds, ranked as the No. 7 prospect on their draft list, but got him with the 22nd selection.
"I was getting pretty anxious sitting down and seeing all the other guys be called," said Kapanen, who had seven goals and seven assists in 47 games with Karpa in Finland last season.
He is the son of former NHLer Sami Kapanen, who was drafted by Rutherford when he was the general manager in Hartford in 1995.
"He's a great skater," Rutherford said. "He's already played with men. His development has moved along a little more than some other players."
He added that Kapanen is bigger and stronger than his father, who was his son's teammate in Kalpa last winter.
"He's been my coach, my trainer, my fan, my dad," the younger Kapanen said. "I'm really excited that I got to play with him."
Hornqvist, 27, likely will be excited to have a chance to fill a top-six role with the Penguins, too. He can play either wing and is particularly effective in front of the opponents' net. He is 5 feet 11, 187 pounds and has a knack for irritating opponents.
"Hornqvist plays with an edge," Rutherford said. "Goes to the net, works the corners."
Hornqvist had 22 goals and 31 assists in 76 games in 2013-14. He has four years remaining on a contract with a salary cap-hit of $4.25 million.
Although Spaling, 25, is versatile, his offensive game lacked consistency in Nashville.
He had 13 goals and 18 assists in 71 games in 2013-14 and will be a restricted free agent if not re-signed by July 1. His about-to-expire contract was worth $1.5 million last season.
Neal, meanwhile, has the potential to be a consistent 40-goal scorer -- or better -- in part because of an exceptionally quick release.
He got a career-high 45 goals in 2011-12 and put up 31 in 59 games last season.
He has not been especially productive, however, in the playoffs, putting up 11 goals, 11 assists in 38 postseason games with the Penguins.
He also has had a penchant for taking unnecessary and costly penalties. Neal was suspended five games last season for kneeing Boston's Brad Marchand in the head Dec. 7.
Neal also could be a prickly presence around team staffers, media and even some teammates. Rutherford did not deny that played a part in the decision to deal him.
"Everything comes into play when we're looking at possibly moving a player," he said.
Especially when there are 15 clubs willing to take him off your hands.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.
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