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As James Neal Returns To Dallas, We Look Back At A Controversial Trade

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Just over a year ago Dallas Stars fans were faced with the most decisive trade since Jamie Langenbrunner and Joe Nieuwendyk were sent to the New Jersey Devils in 2002. With the Dallas Stars in serious need of defensive help and facing an uncertain financial future, the Stars needed to find a way to help bolster a blue that was in trouble. The Stars lacked a true transitional game, something that was costing them dearly at a crucial point in the season and while Philip Larsen was showing some promise the Stars had little in the way of an answer within the system.

It wasn't just about last season alone, either. The Stars, without an owner and with the sale of the team more uncertain than ever, the chances of improving the blue line through free agency were drastically slim. Thus the Stars were forced to make the decision to improve the defense through a trade, most notably in need of a top pairing defenseman that could move the puck and actually produce offensively.

To do so, the Stars would have to pay a price. Every team needs "puck moving defensemen," perhaps the most coveted asset in hockey today. These sorts of players don't come cheap and when the Stars began to focus on Alex Goligoski of the Pittsburgh Penguins, it became clear that the Stars would have to provide a significant player in return and with the Penguins already deep on defense, the Stars would have to part with one of their young and talented wingers.

After the jump, we look back at the trade that would send a popular winger to Pittsburgh and whether, a year later, the trade has worked out for the Dallas Stars...

Before a trade was officially announced, it was rumored that the Dallas Stars were offering James Neal up for the puck-moving Alex Goligoski, who was stuck behind the incredible depth the Penguins have on defense. With Stars fans everywhere panicking about the impending loss of James Neal, we took a look at why Neal was expendable for a team that was already struggling with consistency and offense. From February 21 of last year:

This is why Neal's name has come up more than any other player when it comes to trade talks surrounding the Dallas Stars. I guarantee you that of Eriksson, Jamie Benn, Tom Wandell and Steve Ott the Stars see Neal as much more expendable -- especially considering his potential value in a trade for a defenseman.

James Neal is a fan favorite, mostly based on what we saw from him his rookie season and the start of last year. Since then, all we talk about is "potential" while we wait for the old Neal to show back up. There's a very likely chance that Neal's value will plummet as he continues to struggle to create offense on his own and now more than ever the Stars are looking at the highest value they'd get for him.

Of all the forwards the Stars could use in a potential trade, James Neal makes the most sense. He has fallen from untouchable status to expendable while the rest of the NHL still covets the potential he brings to the table. If you think about it, a player like Goligoski in exchange for Neal makes sense and to expect anything more in return is asking way too much.

It's tough to really look back with unbiased hindsight at how we viewed James Neal before the trade. What we have to remember is that for most of the season Neal had become an incredibly inconsistent player and was not playing with anything near the emotion or physicality that had made him a star when he first arrived in Dallas. In the 30 games leading up to the trade, Neal had just 8 goals in 30 games and was the subject of intense scrutiny as his offensive output dried up. Even with that cold streak Neal had 39 points in 59 games with Dallas and if there was one thing that remained clear, he still had the potential to become a truly great player.

For the Stars, however, he was expendable. For a team that was attempting to rebuild a defense without ownership support Neal became the piece of the puzzle needed to acquire a valuable player ike Alex Goligoski. It's interesting to look back and see how each player was expendable to their respective teams yet incredibly coveted by the team trying to acquire them.

At the time, the Stars had a defense led by Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley with a slew of defensemen that were under-performing both defensively and offensively. There was no balance to the blue line and the Stars transition game was nearly non-existent. For a team that wanted to be aggressive on offense, the inability to cleanly move the puck out of the defensive zone and up the ice became the source of endless frustration for the team and a big reason why they were being completely outplayed by nearly every team at the time of the trade.

With Goligoski, the Stars would not only acquire a defenseman that could provide balance to the blue line but also potentially be a cornerstone for the team to build around moving forward. I don't believe the Stars ever viewed Goligoski as a true #1 defenseman but what was abundantly clear was that a player like him was needed and the Stars did not have one like him coming to the NHL anytime soon.

Bob Sturm, who covered this same topic today for Fox Sports Southwest, says it best here:

3) The Stars had just finished a season series with the Vancouver Canucks that was a 4-game beat-down of the highest order. To review, the scores were 4-1, 7-1, 4-1, and 5-2. The games were played within a 6-week period of time where the Stars had to play one of the top teams of the league and were exposed each time because of a blue-line that could not breakout the puck at the NHL level with any consistency. Vancouver, as styles make fights, had just the roster to attack and expose this weakness at the highest and most humiliating level. The 20-5 total goals beating and the way that it happened made things loud and clear for the Stars' brass to see that they needed to build a defense that could handle the puck. Their blue-line in some of those games consisted of Stephane Robidas and Trevor Daley to do all of the puck moving, because the rest of the group wasn't capable. Nik Grossman, Mark Fistric, Jeff Woywitka, Karlis Skrastins, and Matt Niskanen are five guys who have their positives, but composure with the puck on their sticks in their own end is not one of them.

To trade for a player like Goligoski the Stars would have to offer up a significant asset in return. With the Stars facing a "rebuild" of sorts as they looked to build around a core group of talented young forwards, the decision would come down to whether Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson or James Neal would be expendable in such a deal. The Stars had no such other player to make the trade with and while Neal had always been a great player there was no question he was the most expendable of the three.

So, the Dallas Stars pulled the trigger and sent James Neal to Pittsburgh. Along with Neal, the Stars parted ways with the maligned Matt Niskanen -- who was in dire need of a restart to his career after two very frustrating seasons in Dallas after Sergei Zubov's career ended. Immediately, Stars fans reacted with intense emotion about the loss of such a player like Neal -- who many were convinced would become a superstar with Pittsburgh while Goligoski was "just a guy."

The trade was intensely polarizing and before any games had even been played, many around the NHL described the trade as a "fleecing" of the Dallas Stars by Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero. After the trade, we attempted to look at just how much value Neal actually possessed and considering that both players were being traded on potential, it was likely that fans were grossly overvaluing a very popular player.

So where does this leave both teams now?

James Neal would score just one goal for the Penguins in 20 games after the trade (one goal in seven playoff games as well) while Alex Goligoski would put up 15 points in 23 games with Dallas -- making one heck of an immediate impact on his new team. This trade was always about the future, however, and both players are enjoying tremendous success with their new teams -- but it's important to remember how different each franchise is at this point in time.

For Neal, he found the perfect situation for his offensive abilities. Playing with the best player in the NHL and finally getting significant power play time, Neal has 30 goals in 62 games and will likely finish with nearly a point per game this season. He's scored 13 goals on the power play and with a Pittsburgh system that allows Neal to flourish offensively, he's shaken off the inconsistency of last season and found the scoring touch we new he'd always had.

Goligoski, on the other hand, recovered from a slow start to the season and now has 26 points in 52 games. He has 16 points in the last 26 games for the Stars, however, and has quickly become the cornerstone on defense that the Stars needed him to be. He leads the Stars in ice time per game and sees significant time on the power play and nearly every situation during games, showing better defensive capability than he was given credit for coming out of Pittsburgh.

More importantly, Goligoski has provided the Stars with a new transition game that is miles better than it was the previous two seasons. Along with Philip Larsen, the Stars have a good puck moving defensive core to continue to build around and while Goligoski will never truly be that #1 defenseman the Stars need -- he was the added piece the Stars desperately needed to continue their slow rebuilding process around Benn and Eriksson.

In many ways, this was the perfect trade for both the Stars and the Penguins. While we said as much at the time we never would have known just how well it would work out for both teams. Both Neal and Goligoski have signed long-term extensions with their respective teams and both are fitting in very well in the new roles they found themselves in. For the Stars, losing a talent like Neal was tough but the addition of Goligoski was incredibly needed in order to help jumpstart a flailing defense that needed as much help as it could get.

Of course, looking back, many will still say this trade was a failure for the Stars. The defense is still in need of help, especially with defensive defensemen and the Stars are going to be fighting for the playoffs this season. Goligoski has been a tremendous boost for this team and the Stars best defenseman but he wasn't the one piece needed to turn this franchise around. They'll see James Neal, playing with the best player in the NHL and scoring 30 goals already this season, and say the Stars were crazy for giving up such an offensive talent. For those that pay attention, however, we know there's no way Neal would have the same numbers here in Dallas.

It's also extremely important to remember the different stages that each franchise finds itself in. The Penguins are a much more talented team that has gone through years of building and with injuries decimating their team last year, James Neal was a player they desperately needed. Moving forward, he's going to be a big part of their success but he's playing on a team that is already one of the more talented in the NHL. It's an incredible situation to find yourself in and he's certainly taken advantage of the opportunity.

The Stars, as we all know, are looking to build around a solid and young core of which Goligoski is an important part. While we may see Neal putting up big numbers now, with Goligoski helping to provide the balance and puck movement on defense that the Stars have needed for quite some time, it's tough to say that either team really won over the other.

Welcome back to Dallas, Neal, and we hope you take it a bit easy on us.