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The Goligoski-Neal Deal: Why and What now?

by David Kalan
In any trade in February a number of questions are raised, and Monday's deal between Pittsburgh and Dallas may raise more than most. For the Penguins, the move fills an obvious need as James Neal instantly becomes the best winger on a team that was desperate for scoring that came from somewhere other than down the middle.

There are three main factors as to why this trade made sense for Pittsburgh. For one, the 23-year-old Neal is loaded with potential. For two, defenseman Alex Goligoski was unlikely to fully develop into a top pair defenseman on a team that already had several blueliners -- see Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin or Kris Letang -- locked up for the forseeable future. Finally, Evgeni Malkin's season-ending injury has given Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero and inordinate amount of cash to burn as he looks to patch up holes ahead of a postseason run.

Given all that, the move appears to be a no-brainer for the Pens, who would seem likely to use Neal on the top line and could see an enormous payoff when Sidney Crosby returns to action and Neal is playing next to, arguably, the best center on the planet.

For Dallas the incentive is a little less clear. Beyond the idea of any move shaking up a team in the midst of a potentially devastating funk, the Stars do get a defenseman who, with 31 points this season, is a proven contributor from the blue line, a place where the Stars have little offensively beyond Stephane Robidas, who has actually scored less than Goligoski this year.

But what is also worth noticing from the perspective of Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk is the salary that changes hands. Next season Alex Goligoski will earn $2.75 million before he becomes a restricted free agent, meaning he could stay on for 2012-13 at a slightly higher salary or simply come off Dallas' books altogether. Going to Pittsburgh in terms of salary next year, however is $5.25 million dollars -- $3.5 million to Neal and $1.75 to defenseman Matt Niskanen. Both players are restricted free agents after next season and Neal, assuming continued or better production, could easily start to eclipse his 2011-12 salary by a fair amount.

All in all, Nieuwendyk and the Stars have saved $2.5 million on the books for next season, which given Neal's potential career trajectory could be a red herring. However, Nieuwendyk could have two other options after this move. Rather than simply a cost-saving measure, this trade may have laid the ground work for another Dallas deal before next Monday's deadline in hopes of salvaging the current campaign. But it could also be a move intended to clear just enough space off the future cap so the Stars can make a legitimate run at signing All-Star center Brad Richards to an extension, something that would keep the franchise competitive for years.

In all likelihood, the immediate impact of this deal will seem much clearer in seven days, but for now there are a number of potential results for Dallas.  Whether it works out for either side as intended, however, could take months or years to fully realize. Only one thing is really certain: Nieuwendyk now has some significant choices to make.
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