Just in case anyone thought the Pittsburgh Penguins might be giving up on this season with nine forwards out of their lineup, GM Ray Shero made a statement Monday that his team intends to be a contender – now and in the future.
Shero swung a major deal with Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk, picking up forward James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen and sending blueliner Alex Goligoski to Dallas.
“This is a hockey deal, for now plus down the line,” Shero said.
The 23-year-old Neal is the centerpiece of the deal for the Penguins. In his third NHL season, the 6-foot-2, 208-pound winger is already a three-time 20 goal scorer and had a career-high 55 points (27G, 28A) in 78 games last year. He’s a developing power forward who has been working with former Penguin Gary Roberts over the past two years.
Goligoski, meanwhile, was one of two offensive-minded defensemen who came up through the Penguins system at the same time. With the other, Kris Letang, having a breakout season this year, the 25-year-old Goligoski was expendable – though still not easy to part with, Shero said.
“A lot of teams have called about Alex over the past couple of months, and I made it clear that I wasn’t looking to trade him,” the Pens’ GM said. “Our defense was playing well as a group, and I really like Alex; he won a Stanley Cup here. He’s going to be a great addition [in Dallas]; I think he’s going to play a more prominent role there offensively. He’s always been behind [other players] here in terms of minutes.”
In Neal, however, Shero saw an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“If I was ever going to move Alex, it had to be for the right forward, and I think in James Neal we’ve found that. He’s a young, up-and-coming winger whose best days are ahead of him. There’s not many of these young power forwards in the game and, in our opinion, Neal is one of the better ones. This was a chance that might not be out there again.”
Ironically, it’s a chance that opened itself up to the Penguins as a result of their rash of injuries. With cap hits like Evgeni Malkin’s $8.7 million on IR through the end of the year, Pittsburgh could afford to pick up some salary – which it did, adding Neal’s $2.8 and Niskanen’s $1.5 million while parting with $1.8 million in Goligoski. All three players involved in the deal are signed through the end of next season.
“Timing-wise and cap-wise for us, this really wasn’t a possibility for us before these guys were injured – and that would’ve been fine, because our team was playing well,” Shero said. “Hopefully a good came out of a bad.”
The Penguins made a concerted effort to shore up their blueline last summer, adding high-profile defensemen like Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek. That helped make the loss of Goligoski easier to bear, Shero said, although parting with a top-four defenseman also made Niskanen an important addition.
“With the emergence of Kris Letang, he’s a defenseman we’re building around, and obviously signing Martin and Michalek in the offseason to go along with [Brooks] Orpik – we have a couple of other young defensemen that are coming along [in Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland], but that’s why it was important to get Niskanen in the deal,” Shero said.
A former first-round draft selection, the 6-foot, 200-pound Niskanen is already in his fourth NHL season, breaking into the league young for a defenseman.
His best season came in 2008-09, when he led Dallas defensemen in scoring with 35 points (6G, 29A), and Shero thinks the change of scenery might result in a return to that increased offensive production for the Minnesota native.
“He’s a right-handed shot who can play the left side, he can kill penalties, he can play the second unit on the power play,” Shero said. “Whether it’s just a confidence issue or if a change might be good for him, which is what I’m hoping, we have a good coaching staff and, hopefully, we can get him back to where he was earlier in his career.”
As next Monday’s trade deadline approaches, Shero may not be done fine-tuning his club.
“Cap-wise, we’re still in decent shape. We have some room to continue to look at some pieces that might help us and see if we can get better,” he said. “I think you’re just looking for good players and if there’s a fit. We’ll continue to listen if there’s something that makes sense.”
Logic would indicate that, in taking steps to improve their team, the Penguins are operating under the assumption that captain Sidney Crosby will be back from his concussion this season.
But Shero said that’s not a given and the improvements he made to his team Monday are intended for both the short- and long-term.
“This is a deal I would’ve done in the [upcoming] summertime and I would do now,” he said. “It’s not just for this year, it’s moving forward the next few years in adding these players. I think I’ve read a couple times that I’ve got to find a winger, so I think this is a step in the right direction, regardless of when Geno’s back or Sid’s back.”