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Numbers Game: Penguins pluck Neal from Stars

Scott Cullen
2/21/2011 5:42:50 PM
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The Pittsburgh Penguins made a shrewd move, getting winger James Neal from the Dallas Stars.

Numbers Game looks at the deal, searching for some justification from the Stars' side.

The Penguins Get: LW James Neal and D Matt Niskanen.

Neal, 23, is a winger with good size (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) and  a scoring touch, with at least 20 goals in each of his first three NHL seasons.  Neal uses his size effectively, ranking third on the Stars in hits (120) and takeaways (51), many of which come in forechecking situations.  His plus-8 rating ranked second on the Stars. 

While Neal has obviously reaped the rewards of playing alongside a first-rate playmaker like Brad Richards in Dallas, there could be an even better opportunity, eventually, in Pittsburgh if he finds himself on Sidney Crosby's wing. 

For all the opportunities that Richards creates, there's no reason to think that Neal wouldn't have even more opportunities playing with Crosby.  A full season alongside Crosby should make Neal a threat for 40 goals.

Currently, the Penguins need any healthy bodies they can get up front and Neal is certainly better than just any healthy body.

Neal is under contract through next season, at a cap hit of $2.875-million (per www.capgeek.com), but for a cost-conscious team like the Stars, it's worth noting that Neal's actual salary is scheduled to jump from $2.25-million this season to $3.5-million next year.  He'll be a restricted free agent following the 2011-2012 season.

24-year-old Matt Niskanen has fallen out of favour in Dallas as his production has tailed off dramatically.  After 26 points and a plus-22 rating as a rookie in 2007-2008, Niskanen had 35 points, but was minus-11 the next season. 

Last season, Niskanen dipped to 15 points and minus-15 and this year has just six points and a minus-1 rating as his ice time has dropped to 15:44 per game, after playing more than 20 minutes per game through his first two years in the league.

Niskanen is under contract through next season, at a cap hit of $1.5-million.  While his game has gone downhill lately, Niskanen has good skills with the puck and is still just 24; young enough that a fresh start could provide the opportuntiy to build his game back up.

The Stars Get: D Alex Goligoski.

Goligoski, 25, is enjoying a fine season, posting 31 points and a plus-20 rating in 60 games, but he was not counted on as a first-pair workhorse blueliner for the Penguins, with his 20:45 of ice time per game ranking fifth among Pittsburgh blueliners.

The Stars have had a glaring need for a top four defenceman, ideally one that could quarterback the power play, and Goligoski fits the bill.  He has 17 points on the power play this season and will clearly be an upgrade for the Stars in that role.

Signed through next season, at a cap hit of $1,8333,333, Goligoski's salary bumps up to $2.75-million next season, meaning the Stars save $2.5-million for next season and that savings (and whatever the Stars choose to do with that additional cash flow) has to be considered as part of the deal, but on the basis of the players involved, the Stars didn't seem to get enough.

Those savings might be re-invested next season, but the Stars are shorthanded up front right now.  With Brad Richards and Jamie Benn (among others) already sidelined, and now Neal gone, the Stars -- barring any acquisitions -- will have to look to the likes of Steve Ott and recently-signed veteran Jason Williams to play more significant offensive roles. 

Does that inspire confidence that the Stars will be able maintain their playoff position?  No, it does not. 

Unless this is a precursor to another deal, in which the Stars take advantage of financial flexibility created by this move, then it looks like a win for the Penguins, with big upside for Neal as a first-line scoring winger, even if Goligoski fulfills expectations as the Stars' power play quarterback.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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