Nashville Predators matchup tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins pits first line right wingers against the man they were traded for two years ago.
Moving into the 2014-15 season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were looking to get tough after suffering a disappointing bounce from the second round of the NHL playoffs, and the Nashville Predators were gasping for a goal scorer after missing the postseason for a second consecutive year.
So begat the trade which sent Penguin sniper James Neal to Nashville for net-front agitation expert Patric Hornqvist and depth piece Nick Spaling. Nearly two full seasons into their new uniforms, we can begin to speculate as to who walked away the winner in this swap.
Everyone knew what Pittsburgh was getting in the deal- a straight forward hockey player who brings grit into the offensive zone and excels at giving his teammates space, so it didn’t come as a surprise when Hornqvist registered instant impact when placed on a line with world class talent Sidney Crosby. He recorded 25 goals and 26 assists, breaking the 50 point mark in his first campaign as a Penguin.
James Neal, however, had question marks ushering him into Smashville. Could he be as effective a goal scorer without being fed by superstar talents like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin?
His response- a bit ambiguous, notching 23 goals and 14 assists. Though he tied for 2nd in goals on the team, his 37 points in 67 games marked the lowest points per game average on a season since his rookie outing (barring a drastically shortened 20 game outing).
Regardless of numbers, Neal’s first line presence worked for the Predators, returning the franchise to the playoffs for the first time in three years- though neither player could prevent their team from being bounced in the first round.
The 2015-16 season has seen a swift and perhaps telling change of fortune for the players in their new homes. The Penguins struggled early in the season, and the difficulties of linemate Sidney Crosby exposed an ineffectualness in Hornqvist’s game.
Marking only 1 point in the opening nine games, the former 6-year Pred was demoted to the third line before eventually solidified his play and earning his way back to a seat at the top right wing slot, gathering 18 goals and 28 assists with a plus/minus of 14.
Meanwhile, James Neal has steadily marked the score sheet throughout the season as well as anyone on the Nashville roster, sniping his way to the second 30 goal campaign of his career while adding 22 assists for 52 points- a point above Hornqvist’s 2014-15 totals with a few games still in hand.
Neal holds a team-leading plus/minus of 24, good for 10th in the NHL, while his 30 goals sit him at 12th in the league, just behind teammate Filip Forsberg.
The addition of supremely talented linemate Ryan Johansen could be claimed to have returned the Nealer to goal scoring fashion, except that Neal had already netted 15 goals in the first 40 games sans Johansen. That put him on pace for a 30 goal year, without necessitating the presence of a superstar talent as some critics had suggested he required.
Retrospect makes it looks like the 2014-15 season was simply an adjustment period for the star power player, who was voted as one of four Nashville Predators to represent the team at this year’s All-Star game.
But in our world of This Vs. That, we must judge a winner of the trade- though both teams got the guy who brought what they wanted to the table.
Hornqvist is, simply put, a pillar. He elevates the game of those around him, and when the guys around him are some of the guys they have out in Pittsburgh- he’s a tremendous asset. But as fantastic as a pillar can be at holding up and supporting- one thing it can’t do is carry.
James Neal’s goal-scoring ability has demonstrated the ability to do just that for the Nashville Predators. He is, overall, the better and more dangerous hockey player- and it’s why he commanded the trade of two players for his one.
Neal has been an integral part of Peter Laviolette’s installation of a new offensively-minded system which has righted the ship and looked brilliant at times in Smashville. And although both players are nearly identical in age and experience, it’s difficult to argue against the idea that Neal’s ceiling of play is far more enticing than Hornqvist’s consistency.
Let’s put it this way: I don’t think anyone in Smashville is calling for tradesies-backsies anytime soon.
Oh yes, and the other piece of the trade. Depth forward Nick Spaling was traded after one season to the Toronto Maple Leafs as a fraction of the package that made Phil Kessel a Penguin, and was subsequently offloaded with Roman Polak to the San Jose Sharks for Raffi Torres and a couple of 2nd round picks. He now centers the Sharks fourth line and is presumably exhausted from being shipped around the country as a throw-in piece for package deals.