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Hornqvist trade has given Pens what they hoped

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Jim Rutherford was hired as general manager of the Penguins on June 6, 2014, and exactly three weeks later, he made the first trade of his tenure - acquiring Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling from Nashville in exchange for James Neal.

While a lot of the talk has centered around other moves Rutherford has made since - particularly bringing Phil Kessel, Carl Hagelin, Trevor Daley and Justin Schultz to Pittsburgh last season - that first trade was critical in getting the team to where it is today.

It was the first piece of the puzzle that led to the Penguins becoming Stanley Cup champions in 2016 and looking to defend their title against the Predators starting Monday in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final at 8 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.

Rutherford reflected on the trade on Saturday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, particularly on Hornqvist and how the 30-year-old winger has helped this team change its mindset and attitude.

"He was important because once he was added to the players that we had here, the element that he brought, it made it easier piecing the other things together," Rutherford said.

"It's trading for needs that both teams were looking for. Nashville was looking for a player that could score and we all know that James Neal can do that. And we were looking to change things up here a little bit with the type of player that we got. It's the way a trade should work. It's a trade that worked for both teams."

Rutherford said that after arriving in Pittsburgh, based on what he knew of the Penguins at the time and the overview he got from the people already here, his goal was to change the mix of the type of players they had. And they identified Hornqvist as someone who would shake it up.

"What he brought to the dressing room, always being positive, what he brought on the ice with his work ethic and how he played the game - going to the net, puck pressure and all the things people see that he does and being a guy that's capable of scoring 20 goals - those guys are hard to find," Rutherford said. "And so he was a guy we identified as somebody that could help change the mix a little bit."

Rutherford had heard a lot about Hornqvist, but nothing quite prepares you for meeting the Swede for the first time as he's absolutely bursting with energy.

"It just confirmed all the things we had heard and the homework we had done," Rutherford said with a smile. "But what really amazes me is that when our team is tired, when we're going through long stretches of things, he is the one guy that when you see him in the morning, he's not going to change. It's 'hey hey hey, how you doing, I'm doing great,' and he might have the flu and he's still going to tell you he's doing great."

Hornqvist said there wasn't any kind of discussion between him and Rutherford about making sure he brought that attitude to the rink every day. Rutherford knew that's just how he is.

"I think that's the way I am and I hope I'm always going to be that way," Hornqvist said. "I try to bring a lot of energy in the room and on the ice. It doesn't matter what the score of the game is, I always try to be positive and bring that extra energy."

Hornqvist's coaches and teammates can't help but smile whenever they talk about him. Especially head coach Mike Sullivan, who constantly praises Hornqvist for his competitive nature.

"He loves to compete," Sullivan said. "He loves to win. He's got an insatiable appetite to win. And we love his fire. I think it's contagious on the bench. He's a passionate guy. He wears his emotions right on his chest. And I really think it helps our team. It boosts our energy. He's a real positive guy amongst his teammates."

A player like that is absolutely invaluable at this time of the year. As Sullivan admitted after the Game 7 double-overtime win against Ottawa on Thursday, getting to this point is hard and called it a 'war of attrition.'

But Hornqvist is someone that comes ready to go to battle every single night and it's impossible to not be inspired by him and the warrior that he is, whether it's battling in the corners or blocking a shot with his helmet like, as countryman Carl Hagelin called him, a "true Viking."

"He's one of those players that when things aren't going right at a certain time or things aren't going right in a game, that he brings a certain element of 110-percent effort that rubs off on other players," Rutherford said. "And he certainly helps other guys who may be going through a tough time and say, 'we can do this too.'"

That was the thing that stood out the most to Sidney Crosby when he played his first game alongside Hornqvist.

"I just couldn't believe the beating he took in front of the net night after night," Crosby said. "He'd get knocked down, get back up and from playing against him, you could see that he was kind of a pain to play against there. But when you see it every day, you see why he's so tough to play against."

Hornqvist is a guy that battles through so much all season long and is willing to play through bumps and bruises without complaint, but right now, he's dealing with more than that as he has been out since Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final against Ottawa.

But he's been making progress, as Sullivan labeled him a game-time decision for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Both Hornqvist and his teammates can't wait for him to be back, and they hope it's in the Stanley Cup Final against his former team.

"It's going to feel a little special, for sure," Hornqvist said. "Playing your old teammates in the Final, you don't really think that happens too often. So that's going to be a special moment for me. Go out there and have fun with it if I'm playing. Just raise the level."

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