NHL

Numbers Game: Neal to Nashville

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Scott Cullen
6/27/2014 9:39:53 PM
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The Pittsburgh Penguins dealt a top scoring winger, improving their forward depth in the process.

Numbers Game breaks down the trade sending James Neal to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

The Predators Get: RW James Neal.

Neal, 26, is a power forward who has been riding high while playing on Evgeni Malkin's wing for the bulk of his time in Pittsburgh. Over the past three seasons, he has scored 88 goals, which ranks fifth, behind Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Corey Perry and Phil Kessel. He's also put up dominant possession stats, but a lot of that would figure to be related to the favourable ice time that he gets with Malkin.

While the Predators are aiming to get more scoring in their game, they don't nearly have the playmakers to compare with Pittsburgh, so if Neal ends up playing with Mike Fisher, Colin Wilson or Calle Jarnkrok, none of them is particularly dominant offensively, so expect Neal's production to dip. The question is, how far?

Before he joined the Penguins, Neal had 131 points in 214 games with the Dallas Stars, a 50-point pace over an 82-game season. That should be about the baseline, with room to move up because Neal currently is a better player than he was from age 21 to 23, but we can also keep in mind that Neal has scored more than 60 points twice in his career.

Neal is signed for four more years, at a cap hit of $5-million per season, so he's a reasonably-priced first line forward for the Predators.

The Penguins Get: RW Patric Hornqvist and LW Nick Spaling.

Hornqvist is a 27-year-old winger who has been one of the more prolific shooters in the game over the past five seasons. He's a four-time 20-goal scorer who is most effective right around the crease, deflecting shots and knocking in rebounds. He played primarily with Mike Fisher last season (with Colin Wilson and Matt Cullen their most common linemates) and while that line was effective -- Hornqvist's relative possession stats have always been really good -- it's not quite as dynamic as what opportunities Hornqvist should have in Pittsburgh.

If Neal is expected to see his scoring go down as a result of this trade, naturally Hornqvist should expect an uptick in his scoring numbers. He scored a career-high 53 points last season and while his on-ice shooting percentage was a career-best, it wasn't outrageous and is still below what is typical for wingers alongside Malkin or Crosby.

Signed for four more years, at a cap hit of $4.25-million, Hornqvist comes a little cheaper than Neal, but not dramatically, so the Penguins have to expect that they are not going to lose much offensively.

Spaling, 25, scored a career-best 32 points last season, playing a career-high 16:01 per game, and while he may not play quite as much in Pittsburgh, the hope is that he might help the Penguins' bottom six forwards. However, Spaling's possession stats have been rough for most of his time in Nashville, which doesn't suggest that he'll be turning the tide on his own.

A restricted free agent who earned $1.5-million last season, Spaling is looking at a raise, but the Penguins are probably not in position to give him a lot more money, but they need Spaling to give them more reliable minutes on the third line.

It didn't come as a massive surprise that the Penguins moved Neal -- it has been rumoured as a possibility for some time -- but the return may be something of a surprise. The Penguins didn't save a bunch of money; rather, they found a couple of forwards with the hope that will help improve their depth up front. They sacrificed the most talented player in the deal, though, and that presents a certain amount of risk, particularly if Hornqvist doesn't produce at the same level.

For a Nashville team that is making a concerted effort towards a more offensive style, Neal is a big addition, well worth the price they paid.

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

James Neal  (Photo: Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images)
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