PITTSBURGH – When Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford traded James Neal during the first day of the 2014 NHL Draft, he said he wanted to change the mix of his team — a team coming off a second round collapse after being up 3-1 in their series against the New York Rangers.
The other side of the deal was saying the same thing. Nashville Predators GM David Poile wanted to change up his forward group and inject some more offense into his lineup.
“Neal scored 30 goals the first couple of years, he had like 23 this year,” Poile said Sunday during Stanley Cup Final Media Day. “He’s an offensive player that gives us a chance to be better at that end of the ice. He’s pretty well provided that for us.”
Three years later, the deal has clearly worked out for both teams. Hornqvist has given the Penguins a physical presence up front and scored 68 goals since arriving in Pittsburgh. Neal has done exactly what Poile was looking for and score goals, 78 to be exact over three seasons.
Two years after the trade, however, it was Hornqvist and the Penguins celebrating a Stanley Cup victory, a moment that stung for Neal. While he was happy for some of his ex-teammates, he couldn’t help but feel jealous.
“Any time you get traded you definitely don’t want the team that you just got traded from to go and win the Stanley Cup, so it’s tough watching that,” Neal said. “I didn’t watch as much as I normally would just because of that. It is hard. You still have friends on the team and guys you keep in touch with.
“Trevor Daley was a guy that I played in Dallas with and he kind of helped me through the start of my career. Guys like that, seeing him win the Stanley Cup and the tough time he was going through with his mom, I was really happy for him. It’s tough to see it. It’s something you dream of winning. You want to be on that side of it, but at the same time you put the work in and you’re in a place that wants to win just as bad. Here we are today.”
Adjusting to Nashville didn’t take very long for Neal, who says he’s a big country music fan. It helped that he was in the Western Conference and away from seeing the Penguins on a regular basis and being asked about the trade regularly. Over that time he’s watched the city fall deeper in love with the team and the franchise grow into a contender, thanks to Poile’s continued ability to work out bold trades to deliver a championship.
The Penguins made the playoffs in each of Neal’s four seasons in Pittsburgh, including a run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2013. That experience prepared him for this ride with Nashville. An alternate captain in each of the last three seasons, he’s found his home on and off the ice.
“It’s great for both teams. It happened to work out that way,” Neal said. “Any time you get traded it’s tough, but going to a place that wanted me and believed in me, that’s a good feeling. We’ve taken some great strides over the last three years. We find ourselves in the Stanley Cup Final.”
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