When Pittsburgh Penguins' GM Ray Shero dealt everyday defenseman Alex Goligoski to Dallas for James Neal and Matt Niskanen last February, it was the consensus that Shero had put one over on Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk.
Given the deal, many believed Shero had incriminating photos of Nieuwendyk hidden in a desk drawer somewhere in the CONSOL Energy Center.
Goligoski was often panned in Pittsburgh for indecisiveness and poor defensive play. Meanwhile, Neal was an annual 20-goal scorer, the long-awaited "winger for Sidney Crosby," and Niskanen could be, at worst, a warm body to replace Goligoski's spot in the third defensive pairing.
However, a pair of lackluster playoff performances from Neal and Niskanen left many reassessing those initial analyses.
After 34 games this season, the deal again looks like an absolute steal.
Neal has blossomed into the sniping winger the Penguins haven't had since Petr Sykora fell out of favor with the team in 2009. Niskanen is becoming more vital with each game (and injured defenseman), and Alex Goligoski is languishing in an injury-marred season in Dallas.
Neal, as expected, has become the star piece of the three-player deal. After scoring just twice for the Penguins last season, Neal (19 goals) is already three tallies shy of his entire 2010-11 total and eight short of his career-best 27 goals in 2009-10.
The reason? Evgeni Malkin.
This season, Neal and Malkin have become the most lethal scoring combo Pittsburgh has seen in quite awhile. Neal languished last year alongside Mark Letestu and aging winger Alex Kovalev.
Letestu was unable to create space for Neal and Kovalev was unable or unwilling to play at the same breakneck pace as Neal.
This season, Neal is playing with one of the best centers in the game in Malkin, who also happens to be playing some of the best hockey of his career.
The results have been symbiotic.
Neal is on pace to score 45-plus goals this season and shatter his career-high 55 points, and Malkin, aided by the play of his wingers, is returning to his 100-point form of a few years ago.
Neal and Malkin are also first and second in the NHL in shots per game (4.8 and 4.0, respectively) and total shots (136 and 130, respectively).
While Malkin might be making a case for the Hart Trophy, it's Neal who'll benefit the most from the pairing when he ends the season as a restricted free agent in search of a new deal.
Neal leads the team with 19 goals, one shy of league-leader Steven Stamkos, and paces all NHL scorers with 10 power play goals. His 45-goal pace, as mentioned, would shatter his personal best of 27, and he's currently in the top-ten of the NHL in goals (19, second overall), power play goals (10, first overall) and power play points (15, t-5th overall).
While Neal has been a notorious first-half performer, he's been very consistent so far this season. He's currently enjoying a six-game points streak (5G-3A) with five of those eight points coming on the man-advantage (3PPG, 2PPA).
Overall, Neal has registered points in 25 of 34 games this season with seven multi-point contests, and is yet to play more than three consecutive games without at least one registered point.
Neal is making $2.875 million this year. While the Pens have first rights to his next deal (RFA status), Neal can likely earn $4.5 million if he remains consistent in his production.
Meanwhile, Matt Niskanen has gone from also-ran to staple on the Penguins' decimated blue line.
With Kris Letang, Zbynek Michalek, Brian Strait, Robert Bortuzzo and Ben Lovejoy each missing significant time, Niskanen has taken big shifts on the power play, penalty kill and as a first-pairing defenseman at even-strength.
In December, only Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland have joined Niskanen as NHL regulars to stay healthy on defense.
Niskanen has averaged over 21:00 TOI in nine December games, and 17 of his 26 points have come in those nine games.
Five of Niskanen's six power play points this season have also come in the month of December, in which he has replaced the injured Kris Letang and ineffective Paul Martin as the second point-man on the first power-play unit.
Niskanen is currently riding a three-game points streak (goal, four assists) and has points in six of nine games this month. He's played more games than any Penguins defensemen this season, and sports a club-best plus-eight rating.
Niskanen, like Neal, is an RFA at the end of the year, and his $1.5 million cap hit is certain to increase as the 24 year old continues to log big minutes in important situations.
While the Pens have 12 impending free agents on the roster, Neal and Niskanen are quickly making themselves Pittsburgh's top offseason priorities.
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