Predators steal the show, Senators still stuck with Spezza

James Neal

PHILADELPHIA – In the end, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NHL draft stayed put and so did Jason Spezza. So there you go, all you armchair GMs out there, making trades in the NHL aren’t quite as easy as they look.

Unless, of course, you’re the Nashville Predators. Once the draft started, it was Predators GM David Poile who made the biggest splash on the trade front, acquiring James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. It’s a trade that won’t go over real well with Penguins star Evgeni Malkin and it’s hard to see how this deal makes the Penguins a better team, but this is a team that needed a shakeup in the worst way and trading Neal for a couple of guys who might provide this group of fancy-pants with some grit might not be the worst idea in the world.

“We wanted to change the mix of the team,” said Penguins new GM Jim Rutherford. “We wanted a player with edge, someone who goes to the het, works the corners.”

If Hornqvist and Spaling end up making the Penguins a little less fun to play against, then perhaps dealing a proven scorer when you already have enough scoring might work. But more than anything, this trade signals an abrupt change in philosophy for the Predators, who are slowly coming to the realization that teams must score goals to win games.

“Absolutely,” Poile said when the hiring of Peter Laviolette as coach and trade for Neal signal a change in identity in Nashville. “That’s where the game is going. We have a defense led by Shea Weber, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis and Seth Jones – these are all go-go guys. They can push the pace, they can transition from defense to offense and they can all score. We have to take advantage of a really good goalie in Pekka Rinne and a defense that can do some really good offensive things and we just need our forwards to contribute a little bit more.”

If the trade works out the way Nashville hopes, it will make Neal the centerpiece of two lopsided trades in his career. Three years ago, Neal was acquired along with Matt Niskanen from the Dallas Stars in exchange for Alex Goligoski. Now it’s up to the Predators to find a capable offensive center with whom Neal can play. Their best center at the moment is Mike Fisher, who doesn’t exactly fit that bill. Perhaps Calle Jarnkrok can be that player, but that’s asking a lot of a rookie, or Colin Wilson might improve his game playing with a player of Neal’s caliber.

“We think he’s a first-line player,” Poile said of Neal, “and that’s exactly what the doctor ordered for us.”

Speaking of doctors, Senators GM Bryan Murray might require one to rid him of the headache the Spezza situation has become. Since disclosing that Spezza asked for a trade – a version of the events that is certainly open to debate – Murray has worked hard to try to get a deal, but watched the market go dry on draft day. The fact that Murray was looking to get a first-round pick, a player and a prospect might have turned teams off. Canucks counterpart Jim Benning had to lower his demands for Ryan Kesler and Murray may have to do the same.

With this separation getting uglier all the time, the Senators can’t possibly bring Spezza back, can they? Problem is, the best deal they might have received for him may have already passed.

“There were conversations, teams that suggested they might do certain things, but at the end of the day, there were no legitimate offers,” Murray said. “Four or five teams called, three kind of hung around and said they were interested, but when it came to (Friday), there were really no callbacks.”

After dangling the first overall pick, the Panthers decided to keep it for themselves. There were some intriguing offers, said Panthers GM Dale Tallon. The Flyers were believed to be the most aggressive, apparently offering the Panthers Brayden Schenn, Vincent Lecavalier and the 17th overall pick. Those talks apparently died when the Panthers brought up the prospect of Wayne Simmonds. The Vancouver Canucks made a legitimate offer that centered around defenseman Jason Garrison.

“It was close,” Tallon said. “We had a couple of substantial offers that were very good and it kept me up all (Thursday night). It was enticing, they were two really good deals.”

But as was the case with the Senators, they weren’t good enough. The Panthers at least ended up with Aaron Ekblad. And the Senators? Well, we’ll have to wait a little – or maybe a lot – longer to find out.