NHL: How the James Neal Trade Made Sense for Joe Nieuwendyk and the Dallas Stars

Dave VidlerContributor IMarch 1, 2011

James Neal in his first game as a Penguin (23rd February 2011 vs SJ)
James Neal in his first game as a Penguin (23rd February 2011 vs SJ)Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Since the dust has settled in south Texas, fans of the Dallas Stars franchise have been coming to terms with the loss of fan favorite James Neal, a 20+ goal-a-year power forward with a big frame and what looked to be a promising future in the Lone Star State.

It's no secret that the Stars have been struggling to find a puck-moving defenseman who's name is not Stephane Robidas, or who's not as inconsistent as Trevor Daley. The D-corp in Dallas is by all rights one of the weakest in the West and the Stars have been running off the lethal offensive corp that have finally started to adopt coach Marc Crawford's new offensive system. Of course this depends entirely on the health of the forward group and the last month has been a nightmare of injuries in the American Airlines Center.

So why did GM Joe Nieuwendyk trade for Alex Goligoski?

There are a few possible reasons behind this, but probably the critical reason why Neal was traded was simply because the Stars were in possession of some of the finest up-and-coming forwards in the league. The team already had All-Star Loui Eriksson, Captain Brendan Morrow, Conn-Smythe winner Brad Richards, Mike Ribeiro, Jamie Langenbrunner, Steve Ott and Adam Burish.

Add to that the impressive Tomas Vincour, along with youngsters in Scott Glennie and Tom Wandell. Probably the most significant player however, is sophomore Jamie Benn.

The Stars have undoubtedly played better since he returned from injury and he can play on any line in any position. One shift he works on the third line with Ott and Burish, the next he's centering Eriksson and Vincour. Add to that appearing on Ribeiro's wing on the make-shift first line.

Of course, it's not just because there was a surplus of wingers. It's obvious the Stars would have wanted to keep Neal, but part of the reason he was traded is down to that of himself.

Any Dallas fan would tell you they noticed a loss in the physical "edge" of Neal's play when he was suspended for two games after his check on Columbus Blue Jacket Derek Dorsett in November 2009. Obviously, physicality is part of a power forward's repertoire and losing the "edge" made him less of an impact player.

It can also be noted that he is notoriously inconsistent. Between January 26th and February 19th (last game for Dallas) he had notched up just one goal, one assist and had a minus-there in 10 games, which was after a period of eight points in eight games and a plus/minus of zero.

Being on the Richards line, he was outshone by the league's best kept secret, Loui Eriksson, who had 20 goals and 35 assists before Neal left. Neal had 21 goals and 18 assists. An argument over him getting more help for scoring from Sidney Crosby is also an interesting issue. Brad Richards is one of the best dishmasters in the league. Last year he put up 67 assists to Crosby's 58 in one less regular season game. Neal is an upgrade to most of Pittsburgh's current batch of wingers, so that may change with his arrival.

It also means a cap-saving of $2.5 million, something the cash-strapped and lender-owned club desperately needed. It also gives room to potentially resign a certain center.

So why was Alex Goligoski the man the Stars front office wanted? Goligoski comes into the team as the leading point scorer from the blue line, with 31 points and a plus-20 rating, whilst second-placed D-man Robidas had 26 points and a plus-minus of minus-one when he arrived.

He also provides the break out pass, which has been seriously lacking from the Stars defensive zone. What he lacks in physicality Goligoski makes up for in cerebral offensive play and whilst he has shown to commit the odd horrible turnover, his offensive upside is well worth the deal taking him to Dallas.

He's no Sergei Zubov. If he was as physical as Nicklas Grossman he could well be, but it's the closest in offensive terms the Stars will get to the legendary No. 56.

In the end, this trade will be judged on the success of these two players (and Matt Niskanen). The Penguins talented group of centers finally get a potential 30-plus—maybe if development in Bylsma's system really helps Neal—40ish goal scorer, and a spare D-man who can hold his own in the league when he's on his game. The Stars get that elusive puck moving defenseman they have so desperately needed.

So far, the trade seems to have worked wonders for Dallas. Goligoski has one goal and two assists in three games with a rating of plus-two. He assisted on Loui Eriksson's game-winning goal against Nashville on Saturday and was quarterbacking the powerplay (something which will help Brad Richards' health, the center plays the full 2 minutes on PPs). James Neal and Matt Niskanen have registered no points and have minus-one and zero plus-minus ratings, respectively.

There is no doubt that Neal will eventually find his feet in Pittsburgh, but for now it looks like another shrewd piece of business from Joe Nieuwendyk. He traded a strength for a strength, got Goligoski out of Letang's shadow and has potentially helped kick-start James Neal's career (not to mention letting Jamie Benn run riot with Richards and Eriksson on the top line).

Nieuwendyk is no stranger to controversial moves, such as letting Mike Modano and Marty Turco walk in the summer. While the nation praises Ray Shero for what seems a dream move, the small community of Stars fans in the Deep South are getting a glimpse of what Goligoski can really do for this young team.