Recently, the Nashville Predators management team has not minced words when talking about their largest desire.
Out of the playoffs the last two seasons, the Predators have ranked in the bottom half of the league in goal scoring for the last pair of years. The need: more goal scoring. The solution: a better top-six forward group.
Nashville General Manger David Poile and new head coach Peter Laviolette have been pretty clear that whether through a trade or free agency (or a combination of the two) they want the Predators forwards to improve in both skill and ability.
“That’s our need though. Every team has a need and that’s ours,” Poile said last week. “We need to improve on our forwards and I’m going to be going after a top-six forward. [...] The sooner we get that [forward] we’re immediately closer to making the playoffs, Stanley Cup, all of that.”
Friday night at the NHL draft, the GM made good on his words.
Before even making their first pick at No. 11 this evening, the Predators and Poile pulled off a shocking trade. In exchange for Nashville forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, the Predators received former 40-goal scorer James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins. The owner of six-straight, 20-goal seasons, Neal was shipped out of Pittsburgh as a part of the rapid rebuild happening with the Penguins. Already letting their coach and general manager go this offseason, Pittsburgh has now shipped one of their most prolific scorers out of town.
Is Neal the ultimate answer the Predators have been looking for?
- Natural goal-scorer: Neal’s offensive abilities quickly caught everyone’s eye when he was sent from the Dallas Stars to the Penguins in 2011. Tallying 40 goals the following season, the Ontario native registered 21 more in 40 games during the lockout-shortened season of 2012-2013. A lethal weapon on the power play and five-on-five, he’s broken the 50-point mark three times in his career. To put those numbers in perspective, Neal would have led the Predators in goals each of the last three seasons.
- Age: At 26-years-old, Neal is just entering the prime of his career. A lot of the top-six forward talent rumored to be available (e.g. Jason Spezza) features forwards on the downward side of their time in the NHL. But at Neal’s young age, he’ll have time to grow under Laviolette’s system and may have some of his most productive years still ahead of him.
- Edginess: A lot has been made of Neal’s suspensions and the late hits he’s delivered in recent years. Yes, the forward can play a bit recklessly at times, but with the right supervision, he can use his gung-ho attitude to his benefit. Oftentimes pure goal scorers are accused of sitting back and being soft, but that’s not Neal. Aggressive on the forecheck and willing to throw a hit in order to spring one of his teammates, the forward is far from a one-dimensional player.
- Keeping up in the West: The Western Conference contains many of the best teams in the NHL, a large number of which play in the Central Division with the Predators. Teams in the West cannot afford to be strong on only one side of the puck, or they won’t make the playoffs. This trade helps to balance Nashville’s offense and supplements their already strong defense. Plus, with Neal in the top-six, it’s possible that Poile might have an easier time signing another free agent forward on July 1 (e.g. Colorado Avalanche center Paul Stastny).
- Set-up man needed: At least some credit for Neal’s offensive outburst has to be given to the centers and talent he played with in Pittsburgh. Two of the best forwards in the game, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were able to give Neal time and space by drawing the attention of an opponent’s defense. Who in Nashville will be able to setup Neal? Colin Wilson–coming off an underwhelming season last campaign–is probably the man right now, and he’s only recently been put back at center.
- Leadership and talent lost: “You have to give up something to get something.” That’s true in every trade, and it applies in this one too. Yes, the offense and net presence provided by Hornqvist will be missed, but the passionate stance he’s taken in the Predators locker room after tough losses might leave an even bigger hole. Last season, former Nashville coach Barry Trotz said Spaling could “fix any line.” High praise for a bottom-six player.
- Character: The edge Neal can play with is an asset, the lack of character is not. Whether kneeing the Bruins Brad Marchand in 2013 or cross-checking Red Wings Luke Glendening in the head a few months ago (a $5,000 fine), Neal has several recent (and other past) examples of losing his temper. If these instances are only examples of pushing his edgy style too far, then Neal should work out fine in Nashville–if not–then he might be a ticking time bomb.
Laviolette got the forward he needs for his more offensive system to work well, but he also got a bit of a project. With the right management, Neal can be the pure goal-scorer Nashville has never had before. He’s put up the numbers while in Pittsburgh; now Neal has to show that he can be relied on to be the Predators primary source of offense. In summary, obtaining a top-six forward just entering his prime seemed an almost impossible task earlier this morning, but Poile was able to accomplish it while taking a reasonable risk. That’s got to feel good for the Predators.
Rounds 2-7 of the NHL draft get underway at 9 a.m. (CDT) Saturday morning in Philadelphia. The Predators selected a forward, Kevin Fiala, with the 11th pick earlier this evening. Nashville currently has extra picks in both the second and fourth rounds.