The Pittsburgh Penguins had many reasons for getting rid of James Neal — he took bad penalties in the playoffs, there were rumors that his attitude was causing problems around the locker room and he wasn’t responding to the coaching staff.
So when he was shipped off to the Nashville Predators, it didn’t come as much of a surprise. In return for the 40-goal scorer, the Penguins received forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
At first, the trade seemed like a good move for the Pens, as their biggest offseason priority was establishing forward depth. On top of this, both Hornqvist and Spaling are coming off the most productive seasons of their career, scoring 53 and 32 points, respectively, last season.
The Penguins also got rid of Neal’s $5 million contract, which allowed them to add even more depth up front when they signed Blake Comeau and Steve Downie to cheap, one-year deals on the first two days of free agency.
Now, after acquiring Hornqvist from the Predators, the Penguins are responsible for his $4.25 million cap hit each year for the next four seasons. While that may sound like a bit too much for a guy whose career-high points total in a season is 53, remember that he did so playing with a depleted offense in Nashville. The Predators were 19th in the NHL in total offense last season, averaging just 2.61 goals per game. The Penguins, on the other hand, were fifth in the NHL in the same category.
Hornqvist is going to replace Neal on the second line and we’ll see a rise in his offensive totals. It’d be surprising if he didn’t hit the 60-point mark next season playing alongside one of the best players in the world. He’ll also be a regular on the team’s second power play unit, which will be revamped with the addition of Christian Ehrhoff.
So, the Penguins absorbing Hornqvist’s contract was no big deal; however, Spaling came to the Pens as a restricted free agent, and the Penguins’ front office couldn’t have expected they would end up paying him as much as they did.
Spaling asked for $2.85 million in arbitration, which was ridiculous, but the two sides eventually settled on a two-year, $4.4 million contract. The only good coming out of the deal is that it’s for two years, but that alone doesn’t make up for having to pay him $2.2 million per season.
Sure, he is still coming into his own, and maybe there’s something in the 25-year-old’s game that we are yet to see, but he is likely going to be spending his time on the third or fourth line. Paying $2.2 million for a winger who won’t get top-six ice time is overkill, especially considering that he won’t be utilized on special teams. The Penguins already have some of the best penalty killers in the league on their roster, and Spaling doesn’t have enough offensive prowess to contribute on the power play.
So all in all, the Penguins got rid of Neal’s $5 million salary but are now paying $6.45 million to the two players they acquired in the trade. So, it’s a $1.775 million discount in terms of average annual value (AAV) since they’re paying two players, but the Penguins still have one huge obstacle to tackle — signing Brandon Sutter.
Sutter is also a restricted free agent but plays a far more crucial role in the Penguins’ system than Spaling will. He is one of the best third-line centers in the NHL and one of the keys to the penalty kill that ended last season as the fifth-best unit in the league.
With Spaling getting around $500,000 AAV more than he’s worth (he earned $1.5 million last season), the Pens are left with only $4.2 million before they reach the salary cap. The Penguins currently have 11 forwards signed, so getting a utility guy on top of Sutter would be preferred, but it’s going to be difficult to do so if Sutter isn’t willing to take a pay cut.
It’s good to get Nick Spaling’s signing out of the way, but it not only makes the Neal trade look worse, it also puts the Penguins in a tough financial spot with one of their most important role players still needing to be signed.
Shane Darrow is an NHL writer for Rant Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @ShaneDarrow for up-to-date information on the NHL offseason.