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Analysis: Neal trade shows Predators change course

Saturday, 06.28.2014 / 5:27 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Analysis: Neal trade shows Predators change course
Nashville Predators' acquisition of former 40-goal scorer James Neal was a necessary change

PHILADELPHIA -- Get ready to see a different brand of hockey in Nashville. Some may say it's about time.

The Nashville Predators' acquisition of 40-goal scorer James Neal from the Pittsburgh Penguins for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling on Friday was the most recent sign of a metamorphosis into an up-tempo, offensive team, a necessary change after two disappointing seasons.

The Predators also selected high-end offensive players with their first two draft picks: Swiss center Kevin Fiala with the No. 11 choice and Russian left wing Vladislav Kamenev at No. 42.

Peter Laviolette was hired this spring to replace Barry Trotz, who had been the only coach in franchise history. Trotz was let go April 14.

"I'm excited to get going," Laviolette said.

The Predators were, for the better part of 15 seasons under Trotz, a team that won because of its defensive structure and goaltending. Trotz had no choice but to play that type of system because of the players available to him.

For a while, it was good enough.

Nashville reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs seven times, including six trips in seven seasons from 2006-07 to 2011-12. The Predators won a round in 2011 and 2012, but it's been downhill since; they've been unable to successfully run the gantlet in the Western Conference without legitimate top-line scoring.

They have a game-breaker now: Neal, a shooter with a quick release who scored 88 goals in the past three seasons playing mostly with Evgeni Malkin as his center, at least when Malkin has been healthy.

"We feel [Neal]'s a top-line winger," Predators general manager David Poile said. "We feel he's a goal-scorer. That's exactly what we were looking for."

They had been looking for a long time. Poile even joked that he was starting to sound like a broken record when talking about needing more elite offensive players.

Alexander Radulov might have developed into the type of bona fide scorer Neal is, but he topped out at 26 goals before showing his preference for playing in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

The Predators haven't had anyone score as many as 30 goals since Hornqvist in 2009-10. They have had four 30-goal scorers since the 2005-06 season. David Legwand led Nashville with 12 goals in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season; 27 teams had at least one player with more.

"He's got what we're looking for," Poile said of Neal. "He's got the speed. He's got the shot. He scores goals. He produces. He gets points. I get it that we don't have Malkin or [Sidney] Crosby, but we're going to have some good [centers] and we're going to find someone to play with him."

That's Poile's next task. The Predators don't have a legitimate No. 1 center to play with Neal.

"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."

There are top-line centers available right now, but Poile has to convince them Nashville is a prestigious place to play. It might be an easier sell with Neal and the fast-paced, go-go-go system Laviolette wants to play, but it's no easy task based on the market.

Ottawa Senators captain Jason Spezza has asked to be traded, but he has a no-trade clause and the Predators reportedly are among the 10 teams to which Spezza would not accept a trade. Also, Spezza has only one year remaining on his contract, and getting a top-line center for one season would leave the at risk of being in this same position next year.

If Poile wants to look on the free-agent market July 1 he can target Paul Stastny, but Stastny likely will be receiving offers from several teams, including his current club, the Colorado Avalanche. The offers could extend into the $7 million-per-season range on a long-term contract.

Poile said that won't be a problem.

"We will do whatever is necessary to be competitive," Poile said.

But patience can be a virtue here, especially if Poile can't land the player he wants, whether that's Spezza, Stastny or someone else.

The Predators have a young-enough core, especially on defense, along with a top goalie, Pekka Rinne, who should be healthy next season. Waiting on the right deal for a top center who wants to play in Nashville can't hurt, especially when you see where the Predators are in comparison to the elite teams in the Western Conference.

Nashville is getting better and clearly trying to adapt to the faster-paced NHL, but it is not close to the level of the Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. It's also behind the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars and San Jose Sharks.

"I'm patient," Poile said. "We've got a little bit of a window of time here to do that. I'd like to do it sooner than later, but I've got to make the right trade."

He did Friday night. Even if Neal comes with some baggage -- three player-safety suspensions in the past six years and somewhat of a surly attitude -- he is the type of scorer that Nashville hasn't had, maybe ever.

Poile's next move will be even more important as he reshuffles the deck and turns the Predators into something Nashville hasn't seen in a long time, if ever.

It's about time.

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