Busy weekend and you couldn’t keep up with what the Pittsburgh Penguins were up to at the NHL draft? No problem. Here’s a breakdown of all the weekend’s important events, complete with some semi-arbitrary grading scale that I developed to save you some time on the details. The James Neal Trade: B-
Make no mistake, the single most talented player to move in the deal is James Neal. He’s probably one of the top-10 pure snipers, and I would rank his release even higher: probably top-5 in the whole NHL. He’s also been a point per game player in 2 of his 3 complete seasons with the Penguins, thanks to his completely underrated passing ability. And he’s done all of that before even entering the historic “prime years” of his NHL career. He won’t have Evgeni Malkin feeding him with the Nashville Predators, but I still have to think that Neal projects as a guy capable of 35 goals and 70 points in a complete 82 game season. Further, you have to believe that a coach like Peter Laviolette is an almost perfect match for Neal: he’s tough enough to not put up with Neal’s behavioral crap, but offensively-minded, and capable of getting a lot from the existing pieces in Nashville.
Despite that, the players the Penguins got in return have a lot to offer their new team too. Honestly, the only reason why I assigned this trade a somewhat lower grade is that you just get the sense that the Penguins left something on the table in order to make this move: they needed to get at least one extra pick out of the Nashville Predators, even if not the 11th overall. They could have gotten by with one of two second round picks that the Preds held, or if not even that, something in the future. They didn’t though, and as such the trade gets a good, not great grade.
Coming back to the Penguins are Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist. So far, Spaling has been largely written off as the flotsam of the trade, but that’s a little bit premature. His possession numbers are, in a word, awful. But he also played in a system that favored playing without the puck, and with some other fairly pitiful possession players. Despite that, Spaling is a career 11% shooter with nearly 300 games played in the NHL. If you’re looking for a silver lining, his 13 goals match the output of Brandon Sutter (who led all non-top-6 forwards for the Penguins), and his 32 points actually surpass Sutter’s 26. Spaling is also noted for being a solid penalty killer and a bit of a bruising presence. Playing in a more offensively liberated system like new Pens coach Mike Johnston’s could hopefully see Spaling mature into a 15-goal, 35-point player, regardless of past possession performance. Spaling is also comfortable at any of the three forward positions, which could be a great boost to the Pens’ depth issues. I end my analysis of Spaling with an upper and a downer. The downer is this: Spaling is currently an RFA, and his previous contract saw him earn an AAV of $1.5 M. Certainly the Penguins will give him a qualifying offer, but I have to suspect that the Pens will have to give Spaling a decent raise in order to come to an agreement, since they can’t really command a loyalty discount. On the positive side though, to me, Spaling passes the eye test–you notice him on the ice, and I can’t really get past his productivity as a 3rd and 4th liner on an offensively anemic team, it’s for real.
I don’t mean to say that Spaling is going to be the next Matt Cooke, but as a player, I think of lot of Pens fans would be happy to see another player with Cooke’s particular skill set (and without any disciplinary issues) on the roster again.
Of course, ultimately, the return on the Neal trade really comes down to Patric Hornqvist. A lot of writers are selling themselves on the notion that Hornqvist’s productivity in Nashville is pretty close to Neal’s in Dallas, and that Hornqvist could become the same caliber of player when he, likely, takes Neal’s spot alongside Evgeni Malkin. I think that’s a little bit wishful. Hornqvist isn’t the passer that Neal is, and he scores his goals much differently: in traffic, in front of the net. And that’s the key to this trade. Hornqvist is the type of “grit and character” player the Penguins have been lacking. He’s been dubbed the heir apparent to Tomas Holmstrom as the league’s best gritty goal-scorer, he thrives in the hardest spots on the ice. So really, I don’t particularly care if he can become a point-per-game producer, or a 40-goal scorer, give me 30 gritty goals, 60 points overall, and do it all again in the playoffs, and this will wind up as a good trade for the Penguins. Drafting Kasperi Kapanen: A
The other big story from Friday night surrounds the team’s first round selection: Kasperi Kapanen. To put it mildly, Kapanen was exactly the kind of player the Penguins needed to draft, and it was a shock to most that he was available to them with the 22nd pick in the draft. Pretty much universally regarded as the top European prospect in his draft class, and regarded by many as a top-10 talent, Kapanen joins Olli Maatta as Finnish players who took unanticipated draft day falls, before both having their falls ended by the Penguins with the 22nd pick. Kapanen is an explosive skater, immensely skilled with the puck, and more than capable of finishing his chances. Kapanen has also been praised for his ability to think the game. Kapanen is still just 17 years old, but has appeared in 60 games with KalPa of Finland’s top league, SM-liiga, where he played with his father, Sami Kapanen.
Kapanen will need to work on bulking up and could certainly use more time playing hockey against top-flight competition (he was injured for parts of the 2013-14 hockey cycle, where he was expected to be part of Finland’s U-20 World Junior Hockey Championship squad, and which also kept him from playing more with KalPa). With all of that in mind, I put Kapanen at more than likely two years away from really joining the Penguins organization. Nonetheless, the best part of all that is simply that Kapanen, despite being relatively raw, possesses all of the intangibles, the things that he will need to improve can be coached: strength and conditioning, and general experience. GM Jim Rutherford made a definite statement with his first pick as GM of the Penguins: he did exactly what Ray Shero never would do, he drafted a forward, and a European at that. The only way this pick could have gone better is if the team had taken a more or less NHL-ready player, but that’s pretty much impossible picking in the last third of each round. The Rest of the Draft Class: C
The Penguins did not have a second or third round pick this year, having previously given them up in the vain pursuit of the Stanley Cup over the last two seasons. Really, that is the only reason for my discontent with their remaining selections. As a team, the Penguins needed to find a way to get into the “middle” rounds to find useful pieces, and possibly shed some salary. They didn’t do it. What they did end up with were some later round players that still instill a new drafting philosophy.
In the 4th round, the team took Sam Lafferty, a native of Hollidaysburg, PA, which makes him an almost local kid (another thing the Penguins under Shero were lambasted for, ignoring local players like Brandon Saad, John Gibson, Vince Trocheck, and JT Miller in recent drafts). Lafferty is a skilled, but undersized forward (6’, 175 lbs) who will certainly be on the long road to development. He has agreed to go to the USHL for the 2014-15 season, and then will begin a collegiate career at Brown University in 2015-16.
The Penguins took yet another forward in the fifth round with Anthony Angello, a large 6’4”, 190 lbs. player most recently from the USHL. He will be enrolling at Cornell for this season. In the sixth round the Penguins selected Jaden Lindo of the Owen Sound Attack of the OHL. He stands 6’1”, 202 lbs., thus adding more size to the forward ranks. Both players have shown some penchant for scoring, but are perhaps more notable for their size.
The team rounded out their draft class with Jeff Taylor, a freshman defender at 2014 NCAA champion Union College. Undersized (6’, 183) and not a prolific scorer, Taylor is still intriguing given that he was named an ECAC all-rookie team member, and certainly contributed on the ice to Union’s success.
As evidenced above, the Penguins made a commitment to selecting forwards in this draft class. It could simply be that after spending a huge amount of picks on defensemen and goaltenders in recent drafts the team felt that those positions could be put on the backburner, or it could be that the top player available in each round mostly happened to be a forward. Nonetheless, I would like this run on forwards more if they had come earlier in the draft, for now it will be a long time before we find out if any of these picks will become NHL players. Updates on the Team’s Pending UFAs: B
Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette provided an update on Rutherford’s plans for his team’s 11 pending UFAs, the answer is pretty simple: let them go. That’s basically it, each one is going to have the opportunity to talk to other teams at the start of free agency. That’s the good news when it comes to players like Brooks Orpik, Tanner Glass, Joe Vitale, and Taylor Pyatt–they aren’t players that need to come back, and now we know that they likely won’t. It’s not quite as good for players like Marcel Goc, Lee Stempniak, and Brian Gibbons who could ultimately form a functional bottom-6 with the team. This only further confirms that highly valuable players like Matt Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen are long gone from the Penguins organization.
Moving beyond the players mentioned above should help the Penguins get younger, and with any luck they should be able to address their needs without paying out any silly contracts in free agency. This opens the doors for the team’s many young defensemen including Brian Dumoulin, Simon Despres, and Scott Harrington (to start) to earn their stripes in the NHL, and forward prospects like Jayson Megna and Adam Payerl to round out a better, more skilled, and more athletic bottom-6.
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