Ron Cook: James Neal's talent, not character, will be a loss



It's easy to say good riddance to James Neal. He badly underachieved for the Penguins in the postseason. He is a hot head who often took retaliatory penalties that put his teammates in bad spots. He is a dirty player who occasionally tried to hurt people and was suspended three times, including last season for kneeing Boston's Brad Marchand in the head and in the 2012 playoffs for charging Philadelphia's Claude Giroux. He wasn't especially popular in the team room because of his arrogance and surly personality.

But the Penguins took a big risk Friday night when they traded Neal to the Nashville Predators for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. They are gambling they will get more from two lesser players than from one with star potential. Hornqvist and Spaling better be really good if the team is going to be improved. Hornqvist, who can play either wing and will get the chance to skate with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, better score more than the 22 goals he had last season. Spaling, who can play all three forward spots and is known as a physical player and solid penalty-killer, better provide more depth and balance than the Penguins received from their bottom six forwards last season. Unless both things happen, which seems unlikely, the Predators will win the trade, short term and long term. That's why it's hard to like the deal.

It's a shame Neal didn't do more here in the postseason. It would have made it a lot easier to overlook his character flaws. But he hardly was alone among the Penguins in wilting under the bright lights. He had two goals in 13 playoff games this spring, one more than Crosby. He didn't get a point in the four-game sweep by Boston in the 2013 Eastern Conference final, same as Crosby. He had 11 goals and 11 assists in 38 postseason games for the Penguins, meager production for a player with his skills. There aren't five players in the NHL with a quicker release or better shot. Neal scored 40 goals in 2011-12, playing with Malkin, and had 27 last season despite missing 23 games because of injury or suspension. He should get 40 goals again -- perhaps a few times -- before his career is done.

By trading Neal, Penguins new general manager Jim Rutherford believes he successfully took the first step toward changing the culture of the team room. He talked repeatedly of the character and grit that Hornqvist and Spaling bring and said they will make the club tougher and better prepared for the playoffs. That's fine. Character and grit are wonderful. But you still need goals to compete for the Stanley Cup. Look at what happened the past two springs when Crosby stopped scoring. His failure -- not Neal, not fired general manager Ray Shero, not fired coach Dan Bylsma, not a lack of a system and not a lack of toughness -- is the biggest reason the Penguins came up so small in the playoffs. It's fair to think Crosby will shine again in the postseason. He's too talented not to shine. But can Hornqvist and Spaling do better than Neal? It's easy to have doubts.

Hornqvist is a four-time 20-goal man with a career high of 30 in 2009-10. He didn't play with high-end talent in Nashville and the Penguins think they will get more from him when he skates with Crosby or Malkin. Spaling had 13 goals this past season, his career high.

Rutherford has said he doesn't think the Penguins need a major overhaul, but the Neal trade is only a start to his off-season work. The team has 11 unrestricted free agents and is expected to lose Jussi Jokinen, its top goal scorer in the 2014 playoffs and Malkin's other winger, and Matt Niskanen, arguably its best defenseman.

Rutherford said finding a winger to play with Malkin is a priority in free agency, which starts Tuesday. But he better be concerned about finding a veteran defenseman, as well, because Brooks Orpik also is expected to leave the team and Olli Maatta and prized prospect Derrick Pouliot are coming off shoulder surgery and probably won't be ready for the start of next season. The Penguins like the young defensemen in their system, but breaking in two or three at the same time hardly seems like the path a Cup contender wants to take. As well as Maata played as a rookie last season, he struggled down the stretch and in the playoffs, although that shoulder problem could have been a factor.

Let's give Rutherford a chance to execute his plan before we pass judgment on his work. But, for now, it's hard to say the team is better than before it traded Neal.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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