Despite character questions, James Neal immediately makes the Predators better
It may take a while to get used to a guy like Neal, but the results on the scoresheet should help ease us in.
Now that we've had a chance to sleep on the the trade that blindsided us last night, it's time to take a step back and really examine what happened. The initial shock of losing a fan-favorite like Patric Hornqvist is a lot to take in, but at the end of the day General Manager David Poile made a fantastic deal. There are things about it I both like and don't like, but the pros far outweigh the cons.
What I Like:
The Predators traded for a top-line sniper on draft day without using a their first-round pick. That's incredible, especially considering how many times Poile had been quoted on saying he wanted to use the the 11th pick to get exactly what he got. Also, half of what was sent to Pittsburgh was an expiring and expendable RFA contract.
In return, they get James Neal, who has never scored less than 20 goals in his career. There are some issues with his character (more on that later) but he will get points and score goals. It's been years since the Predators have had a player with his raw in the lineup.
Nick Spaling was great for Nashville, but the amount of third/fourth line centers the Predators have has been talked about at length. Spaling is coming off a career year (hello 15% shooting percentage) and he will immediately help the Penguins' questionable forward depth. His departure also opens up a roster space for one of the youngsters in Milwaukee, while saving the $1-2 million they would have spent to retain him.
Perhaps the best thing I heard last night came from Craig Custance:
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Poile says Preds have the budget to add a center in free agency for Neal.</p>— Craig Custance (@CraigCustance) <a href="https://twitter.com/CraigCustance/statuses/482711935088345088">June 28, 2014</a></blockquote>
<script async src="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
This tells me the deal wasn't a "do something just to do something" type of deal, but Poile has a calculated plan. He's already thinking about the biggest question everyone has regarding Neal, and is apparently in the works to address it. It also tells the fans that he's not blowing smoke up everyone's rears when he says things are going to change. Martin Erat, David Legwand, Patric Hornqvist are gone. Barry Trotz and crew are gone. That status quo isn't going to fly anymore, so get ready for something different. How many times have we heard that before? Now we're seeing it.
As far as what's been made about Neal playing with Evgeni Malkin, he's still a great player without him. Of the 2,455 5v5 minutes Neal has played in the last three seasons, about 69% percent of has been with Malkin. Together, they're numbers are unworldly. 1.235 points a game, while allowing less .807 goals per game an an insane 57.1% CORSI.
When Neal is apart from the Russian the other 31%, he's just under a point per game (.908) and still has good possession stats that would be tops on the Predators. (52.3%, tied with Gabriel Bourque's 2013-14 CF%) He does allow more goals, but that could diminish depending on the defense and if they get a center with good possession numbers.
So, basically, Neal is incredible when playing with a generational center like Malkin, and still pretty darn good without him. Of course, playing with Sidney Crosby didn't hurt either. Bottom line: his numbers may take a bit of a dip, but he's an upgrade from Patric Hornqvist, and opens room for other players in the organization. All at a $5 million cap hit for the next four years.
In an email with Jim Rixner over at Pensburgh, he reiterated the concern on how Neal may perform away from a playmaking center as well, but he had this to add:
That said, Neal is quite valuable. Not too many guys are capable of scoring 40 goals in a season, and he did. He scored 184 points in 199 career games as a Penguin and was remarkably consistent in his point production. Neal has one of the best shots in the league, and he'll instantly make the Nashville power play better. He finds spots in the zone and has a quick and amazing release on shots. Neal has an edge and will fight to gain space, which is why he sometimes crosses the line, but ultimately to me the perception of James Neal is worse than he actually is.
What I Don't Like:
James Neal for one. I won't mince words because he's a Predator now, but I can't stand him. Mostly because of things like this. It may be petty, and it may change once he starts playing here for a bit, but my initial reaction to the trade was thinking of his three suspensions rather than his stat line.
They also lose a big part of their locker room with Hornqvist, and replace their alternate captain with a player with a shaky reputation. None of us are around the team on a daily basis, so we have no idea what gets blown out of proportion or what doesn't. However, Poile told the Tennessean that while he did his research on the player, he won't try to change him. Hopefully attitude problems won't be a factor in his time here, or else things might get a little awkward...
Neal also has a modified no-trade clause kicking in next year. It's not the biggest problem, but he can supply an eight-team no-trade list. This only becomes a problem if any of the above issues wear out his welcome.
It's hard to say goodbye to Hornqvist, especially because of how loved he was, but this trade is great for Nashville. Neal is a genuine scoring forward that Predators fans have been clamoring for, and it would have been impossible to accomplish without giving up something of value. Change means change.
Sure, there are some issues to consider out of Neal's character, but on the scoresheet he makes the team more deadly than they were before. Poile is a man on a mission. If he can find the skilled center he wants, the Predators immediately become a dark horse to surprise the Central division. That's change you can believe in.