Penguins forward James Neal.
Two years ago this week, the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired James Neal and Matt Niskanen from the Dallas Stars in exchange for defenseman Alex Goligoski. Looking back, it’s clear the Penguins got the better end of that trade.
At the time, it didn’t seem like the Penguins were benefiting much.
For one, Niskanen had dropped off considerably since he posted 35 points in 2008-09. He was on pace for career-low offensive production.
At the same time, the Penguins were giving up an outstanding offensive defenseman. Before the trade, Goligoski had shown the ability to tally 30-plus point seasons. It seemed like the Penguins were giving up a lot of offensive depth from the blue line in exchange for a top-six defenseman in Niskanen.
Thankfully, Niskanen wasn’t the only player to come to Pittsburgh as a result of this trade.
The Stars also sent James Neal—a top-six power forward with a keen ability to find twine. He was the real gem in this trade. Through this acquisition, the Penguins added another talented scorer to their ranks.
The Penguins got all that and more.
Neal proved he could contribute offensively in 2009-10 when he netted 27 goals and 55 points. That’s exactly what they needed. With Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin both plagued by injuries, the Penguins were desperate for offense.
Well, they didn’t quite get it when they needed it. In the 20 games Neal played in the remainder of the 2010-11 season, he only scored once.
Down in Dallas, Goligoski had scored five times and helped with 10 more goals during the 23 games he played in the remainder of that season. Niskanen’s production from the blue line was just as absent as Neal’s, so the Penguins had to be thinking they made a mistake.
Then Neal found his niche alongside Malkin.
The young forward captivated the NHL last season when he scored 40 goals and 81 points. With Crosby out for a good portion of the season, he and Malkin provided the explosive offense characteristic of the Penguins.
Neal also proved to be a welcome addition to the power play. With the likes of Malkin, Crosby and Kris Letang taking the ice on the man advantage, it was hard to imagine the Penguins could have a more formidable power play.
By the end of the 2011-12 season, Neal led the NHL in power-play goals with 18. He’s keeping pace this season, too, with eight PPGs in 19 games—enough to maintain his spot as the No. 1 power-play scorer.
The Penguins were, more or less, forced to sacrifice a skilled offensive defenseman in order to add a scorer to pick up the slack left by their injured superstars.
As they progressed through the 2013 season, the Penguins sans Goligoski aren’t particularly desperate for scoring depth from their defensemen, either.
Letang is playing at a Norris contender pace. He has three goals and 10 assists in 15 games. There is a bit of a drop off in offensive production from Letang to the rest of the Penguins’ defensive corps, but it’s nothing too troublesome.
Paul Martin is finally playing like he’s worth his $5 million contract. Beyond his role as a shutdown defenseman, Martin has also chipped in with two goals and assisted on 10.
Niskanen has been held back by injuries, but has still done his part by contributing three goals and two helpers in 10 games.
Now let’s look at how Goligoski has performed in Dallas.
He played 71 games during his first full season with the team. Over that stretch, he had nine goals and 30 points—not quite as impressive as the 37 points he had in 69 games as a Penguin in 2009-10.
Furthermore, Goligoski has yet to score a goal this season. As a prospect, Goligoski was often criticized for his lackluster performance in his own zone. Perhaps he’s had to shy away from his heavily offensive game in order to compete for minutes.
Also, the Stars are below average when it comes to goals-against per game, so it’s possible he was forced into playing a less offensive game in order to help his club remedy that.
Regardless, there doesn’t seem to be too much of a drop off from Goligoski to Niskanen these days. Then add in the Neal factor and it’s obvious that the Penguins got the best of this trade.