Judging the Neal Trade: Q1 by @BrianK_PI

***All stats through Wednesday, November 26 (21 GP each)***

When Jim Rutherford took over the Penguins this past spring, the first major move he made was a draft day shocker. James Neal had been rumored to be on his way out of Pittsburgh before Rutherford even arrived in town, and he dealt the talented, but troubled, winger to Nashville for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. The trade was not initially well received by many due to a perceived lack of value and Spaling's inclusion in the trade. Those in favor argued that Hornqvist played a more complete game and would receive a similar scoring bump playing next to Malkin and Crosby.

It will take years to full judge the trade, just as all other deals need time to assess their full impact. After all, no one would have predicted after the Hossa trade that it would have been notable for bringing Pascal Dupuis to Pittsburgh. However, we can take a look at the early returns and try to judge the trade as it looks so far. And, with a little bit of further analysis, the answer may be more surprising than it first appears.


Scoring Stats - All Situations and Power Play
Looking solely at the scoring stats, it's clear to see that Patric Hornqvist is having the most productive season so far. Through a quarter of the season, he's on pace for 94 points on the season with 39 goals and 55 assists. James Neal is a decent bit behind, with a projection of 35 goals and 20 assists over 82 games. Even Nick Spaling is chipping in a decent amount of offense, with his 27 points being not far behind his career high, although his recent stint in the top six has helped boost those numbers and he'll be unlikely to match that pace if he's playing mostly in the bottom six.

Taking a closer look at the numbers explains some of the discrepancy between Neal and Hornqvist. Patric Hornqvist has registered 4 goals and 7 assists with the man advantage; James Neal has 1 goal and 1 assist. The Penguins power play has some of the best offensive talent in the game, as Hornqvist gets to take the ice with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Chris Kunitz. The Predators, to be frank, can't even come close to competing with that skill. Pittsburgh is currently leading the league with a 33.3% conversion rate. Nashville is 24th at 13.8%.

Five on Five Comparison
Looking just at the five on five numbers, and James Neal is not only as productive as Patric Hornqvist on the year - he's putting up better numbers. Hornqvist has 13 points to Neal's 12, but Neal is averaging more goals/60 (1.55 vs 0.81) and points/60 (2.33 vs 2.03). The two are receiving similar zone starts, they're both posting a high PDO, and they're both driving possession in comparison to their teammates - Hornqvist more so than Neal, though him spending the vast majority on either Malkin or Crosby's wing could be skewing his contribution somewhat.

The player comparison this season tells part of the story, but a larger part can be told by comparing their production in the first quarter of the season to the other's in the same city. Looking at the previous three year's production, James Neal is producing at a higher level in goals, assists, and points per 60 minutes five on five in Nashville this season than Patric Hornqvist was. Conversely, Hornqvist is producing at lower levels in goals and points per 60 minutes, and producing at a similar rate for assists per 60 minutes, this season in Pittsburgh compared to James Neal's three seasons there. Important to mention here is that both players have a high PDO - while James Neal's regression will take him closer to Hornqvist's rates in Nashville, Hornqvist's regression will take him further away from Neal's rates in Pittsburgh.

Summary:

James Neal has gone from a very good situation in Pittsburgh playing with Evgeni Malkin to a less ideal situation in Nashville while so far maintaining his five on five production (2.33 pts/60 vs 2.35 pts/60 in Pittsburgh). He's far surpassed Hornqvist's production for the Predators, but Hornqvist is still falling short of Neal's five on five work in Pittsburgh. Both have similar PDO numbers suggesting they're due for a decrease in production, though Neal is likely to balance that with increased power play production while Hornqvist is likely to see his decrease. Despite the gaudy scoring numbers, Patric Hornqvist hasn't been able to replace James Neal even with getting some good bounces in the early going.

Bottom line is that Nashville traded a good top six player and a replaceable bottom six player to get a big boost in talent. Pittsburgh traded away the best player in the deal, and the one they got back hasn't been able to match his production. This has been hidden somewhat by the power play clicking at a historic rate, but it's been clear so far five on five. Nick Spaling definitely doesn't bridge the gap in the deal. Rutherford signed two better bottom six options off the scrap heap during free agency in Blake Comeau and Steve Downie and paid much less for each. He would have been much better off targeting a prospect with potential, draft pick, retained salary - pretty much anything else.

It is only my opinion, but I feel Rutherford was forced into this trade by upper management, leading him to target a player instead of a deal that made sense for moving his elite scoring winger. This is usually a recipe for success for the GM on the receiving end, and in the early going that's absolutely true for David Poile. Ray Shero was big on making sure to maximize value, and in a salary cap structure that's an absolute necessity. Rutherford didn't, so despite getting back a very good player in Hornqvist, he fell short in comparison with Nashville, making them the early leader after the first quarter of the season.



***All stats in the post were taken from Hockey Analysis***
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