The Pittsburgh Penguins and Nashville Predators are less than 10 games into the regular season, but the early returns are pretty clear: both sides came out winners from their big off-season swap.
Neal is settling in nicely as a go-to winger on Nashville, while Hornqvist is skating on Sidney Crosby’s wing and Nick Spaling has found a place on the Pens’ third line.
Neal has five goals in eight games so far this season with the Preds, who were undefeated in regulation until Saturday’s 3-0 setback against Pittsburgh. Hornqvist is off to an even better start, with four goals and nine points in his first seven games.
The Pens and Preds faced off for the first time since that trade on Saturday night in a rare meeting between the two squads. Neither Neal nor Hornqvist stole the show, though Hornqvist did notch an assist in his return to Nashville.
However, both came tantalizingly close to burning their respective former teams. Hornqvist hit the post behind Pekka Rinne late in the second period on Saturday, and Neal hit iron on a great chance midway through the third.
But head-to-head results aside, the trade is looking every bit as good now as it did on paper in the summer. Both Neal and Hornqvist are 27 years old and under contract for three more seasons beyond this one. Neal is the Preds' highest-paid forward at $5 million per season, and he’ll be expected to carry much of the offensive load going forward. Hornqvist, meanwhile, makes $4.25 million a season, and that'll be a huge bargain for the Pens if he cracks 40 goals this year.
After a breakout sophomore season that saw him pot 30 goals in 80 games in 2009-10, Hornqvist settled back into being a 20- to 25-goal man in Nashville under a tight defensive system. But now that he's riding shotgun with Sydney Crosby, Hornqvist looks poised to meet, if not exceed that 30-goal career high. He's scoring at better than a point-per-game clip so far and is on pace to score in the 40-goal range.
And in Nashville, the Predators now have a bona fide goal scorer in James Neal. The winger probably won't score at the point-per-game pace we saw when he played with Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh, but he'll still be a top contributor and a gritty competitor with the Preds. And with coach Peter Laviolette pushing for more offense in Nashville, Neal will have lots of encouragement to rack up the goals.
All in all, a great fit for both sides.