PHILADELPHIA -- Jim Rutherford has been talking about creating balance in the Pittsburgh Penguins' forward group since taking over as general manager earlier this month. The general manager thinks he took a long step toward accomplishing his goal Friday night.
Rutherford traded former 40-goal scorer James Neal to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling during the first round of the 2014 NHL Draft at Wells Fargo Center.
"I probably talked to about 15 teams; those calls were mostly initiated by them," Rutherford said. "I had a few offers. We like Hornqvist; he's an all-around player. We like Spaling; he can play all three positions."
The plan is to slide Hornqvist, who has reached the 20-goal mark four times, including a career-high 30 in 2009-10, into Neal's vacated spot on one of the Penguins' top-two lines and provide Pittsburgh with more of a net-front presence. He scored 22 goals in the 2013-14 season.
Neal is more of a perimeter player, but Rutherford clearly was looking for someone who brings more grit.
"We like Hornqvist a lot," Rutherford said. "We just think he's a complete player, an all-around player, a guy that plays with an edge and is going to be good in the playoffs. And also a right-hand shot. We don't have many right-hand shots, so that was another plus."
Rutherford identified Spaling as the versatile depth forward he was looking to obtain. He had a career-best 32 points in 2013-14. He's a top penalty-killer.
"He's also a player that can play all three forward positions," Rutherford said. "If one of our centers gets hurt, he can just slide in there. Very versatile player. I think he's very important to this deal."
Also important to Rutherford is the Penguins received a small slice of salary-cap relief in the trade.
He said they saved $800,000 on the $69 million cap for the 2014-15 season by swapping Neal for Hornqvist, who is signed for four more seasons with a salary-cap charge of $4.25 million. Spaling, a restricted free agent, will slide into one of the spots Rutherford was already planning to use on a depth forward. He made $1.5 million on a one-year contract in 2013-14.
The Penguins have 14 players signed and approximately $14.63 million in salary-cap room for next season, according to CapGeek.com.
"These guys [Spaling and Hornqvist] play the game hard, they play with an edge and they're great team guys," Rutherford said. "They'll be good in our room."
Rutherford wasn't going to be able to make the 2-for-1 trade without giving up a significant piece. Neal was definitely that for the Penguins.
Neal, typically the right wing on Evgeni Malkin's line, scored 61 points, including 27 goals, in 59 games in 2013-14. He has scored 88 goals in 179 games during the past three seasons, including a career-best 40 goals and 81 points in 2011-12.
Neal is signed for four more seasons with a salary-cap charge of $5 million each season.
"We feel like we got a top-flight player, somebody who can play in a top-three position, really contribute on the power play," Predators coach Peter Laviolette said. "His release is excellent. To have a guy like that who can put the puck in the net I think is real beneficial for our team."
Nashville was the ideal trading partner for Pittsburgh because general manager David Poile made it well known that he were looking to upgrade the team's top-six forward group.
The Predators did not have anybody reach 25 goals in 2013-14 and had only three forwards score as many as 20 goals. They were 19th in the NHL with 2.61 goals per game, but almost 25 percent of their goals came from defensemen, including 23 from captain Shea Weber.
"We needed to make some changes with our forwards," Poile said. "Goal-scoring has been a problem for us. Top-line players have been a problem for us. I think we've got the bottom covered off; we just need to get better at forward. We feel [Neal] is a top-line winger. We feel he's a goal-scorer. That's exactly what we were looking for."
What made the trade even more enticing for Poile is that he acquired Neal without having to disrupt the Predators' young defense corps or give up the No. 11 pick in the draft, which he used on Swiss forward Kevin Fiala.
"I really feel good," Poile said. "For a team that hasn't made the playoffs in the past two years, I really feel we're going in the right direction. Obviously with Peter Laviolette coaching our team, we're going to be playing a different style. I think with James Neal and with the type of defense we have, a lot of good offensive guys on D with [Roman] Josi, Weber, [Seth] Jones and [Ryan] Ellis, I think we're moving in the right direction to get ourselves back in the playoffs and back competing for the Stanley Cup."
Poile said his next step is to acquire a top-line center to play with Neal. He indicated that he was involved in some trade discussions to land one Friday night, but it never materialized. He is adamant about getting better at the center position.
"We need a top center. There's no question about that," Poile said. "That's next on the wish list. Whether that comes in trade or free agency, takes another year to get it, that's what we need."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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