Stanley Cup Trade Tree: James Neal for Patric Hornqvist

Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray talks about his injury that led to Marc-Andre Fleury starting and how he thought about the chance of him not playing during the playoffs.

If you have ever read one of my trade trees, you know they can be long, winding, and span several decades.

This is not one of those trade trees.

Even though it’s pretty simple, this is still a fascinating deal.

On June 17, 2014, the Pittsburgh Penguins sent James Neal to the Nashville Predators for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.

Here’s the context:

In 2012, the Penguins had a notorious playoff battle with the Philadelphia Flyers that was violent even by their standards. Remember when Sidney Crosby fought Claude Giroux and Kris Letang fought Kimmo Timonen at the same time?

In 2013, the Penguins made it to the Eastern Conference Final, only to score a miserable two goals in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins. You may remember Evgeni Malkin fighting Patrice Bergeron.

In 2014, the Penguins found themselves with a 3-1 series lead on the New York Rangers. Martin St. Louis put his team on his back with a heavy heart due to his mother’s passing and the Rangers rallied to win the series.

Three years and three playoff defeats, each a different kind of disappointment. They were pushed around in 2012, they made it far only to get crushed in 2013, and coughed up a 3-1 series lead in 2014.

Meanwhile, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in the prime of their careers. You always want to win but you have to think the pressure was turning up for the Penguins to win right away.

GM Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma were fired in the spring following Pittsburgh’s loss to the Rangers. A big shake-up was coming and that was just the beginning.

Jim Rutherford was hired as the Penguins’ new GM on June 6, 2014.

Rutherford’s first deal as Penguins GM was trading Neal to Nashville for Hornqvist and Spaling.

Before getting to Neal and Hornqvist, which is the meat of the trade, we’ll get Spaling out of the way.

In 2013-14, Spaling had career highs in goals (13), assists (19), and points (32). With his contract expiring, his rights were traded to Pittsburgh. Despite testing free agency, Spaling settled down with the Penguins, signing a two-year deal paying him $2.2 million per season.

After one season as a Penguin, Spaling was essentially a cap dump when he was sent to Toronto in the deal that brought Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh.

Now for Hornqvist and Neal.

I looked up some numbers, special shoutout to Corsica, and it’s incredible how closely Neal’s numbers as a Predator compare to Hornqvist’s numbers as a Penguin.

Hornqvist is 30-years-old and Neal is less than a full calendar year younger.

Neal has played 219 games since the beginning of 2014-15. Hornqvist has played 216.

Neal has 76 goals. Hornqvist has 68.

Hornqvist has 146 points. Neal has 136.

Hornqvist has gotten a lot of secondary assists over the past three seasons while Neal hasn’t. If you only count goals and primary assists, Neal has 119 to Hornqvist’s 112. Still very close.

Neal has 14 game-winning goals. Hornqvist has 13.

Hornqvist has exactly 700 shots. Neal has 691.

Even in possession, Hornqvist has a Corsi For percentage of 55.02 compared to Neal’s 54.28.

Neal has gotten more ice time than Hornqvist with 18:19 per game instead of 16:47. Even still, Neal has gotten 22.9 shifts per game while Hornqvist gets 22.5. This basically means that Neal’s shifts are typically just 3.2 seconds longer than Hornqvist’s. We’re basically splitting hairs here.

Penalty differential is interesting. Neal is a minus-15 in that category, taking 15 more penalties than he has drawn, while Hornqvist has been plus-15, but remember that’s spread over three full seasons. If you take those 30 extra power-play opportunities Pittsburgh has gotten and assume the Penguins scored on 20 per cent of them, that’s only six goals or two per season.

Neal is a bit more expensive than Hornqvist. Neal carries a $5 million cap hit to match his salary. Hornqvist is a $4.25 million cap hit making $4 million in his first year as a Penguin, $4.25 million last season, and $4.75 million this season and next.

So far, the Penguins have saved a little bit of cap space, which is important, but is that enough of a shakeup? No, the Penguins needed something more.

My friend Mike Darnay pointed to this interview with Mario Lemieux, Penguins part owner Ron Burkle, and Penguins CEO David Morehouse from 2014 right before the shakeup. When asked about what they wanted and what they thought the Penguins lacked, they kept using the word “grit.” They said grit seven times, actually – five from Lemieux and two from Burkle. I counted.

Well if the Penguins wanted a gritty player, they got one in Patric Hornqvist.

Since the trade, Hornqvist has thrown 474 hits while Neal has thrown just 268. That’s a large gap.

It’s often said that players who hit a lot only do it because they never have the puck. Given his positive possession numbers, we know this isn’t the case with Hornqvist.

Similarly, Hornqvist has registered 149 blocked shots while Neal has only managed 79 in the same time.

If the Penguins wanted a gritty player willing to sacrifice their body or use it to crash into opponents then Patric Hornqvist is that guy. Low and behold, Hornqvist was a feisty nightmare for opponents in last year’s playoffs and the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

Here’s what a bit confusing though…

From the beginning of the 2009-10 season (Hornqvist’s first full NHL season) to the end of the 2013-14 season, Neal threw 555 hits with the Penguins. Despite playing almost the exact same amount of games, Hornqvist threw just 323 hits with Nashville. Even accounting for Neal having more ice time, he still threw hits way more often than Hornqvist.

It looks like when Neal and Hornqvist arrived with their new teams they changed the way they played.

This trade is the definition of a shake-up. The Penguins were able to trade a key part of their roster for another player with similar production. If all you want to do is introduce some new personalities to the team, then that’s perfect. Hornqvist has been everything the Penguins seemed to hope for in 2014 while Neal has been the same goal-scorer in Nashville that he’s always been. It’s not like Neal doesn’t hit anymore, either.

So who won the trade?

Let’s worry about who’s going to win the Cup first.

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