Planning An NHL Heist: The James Neal Trade

Looking Back at the James Neal and Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski Trade

February 21, 2011:

The Dallas Stars traded forward James Neal and defenceman Matt Niskanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenceman Alex Goligoski.

alex goligoski

                      Dallas Stars Alex Goligoski                      photo by Getty Images

I often wonder about the beginnings of any trade talk but I was really curious about the 2011 trade that brought forward James Neal to Pittsburgh.  How long were the negotiations before the two GM’s pulled the trigger on that deal.  

I am also very curious how Penguins General Manager Ray Shero who I presume was the architect of this deal talked then Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk into trading not just James Neal but throwing in Matt Niskanen for Alex Goligoski?  At the time, I raised my eyebrows bigtime when I heard Neal was going to Pittsburgh for Goligoski, never mind that Niskanen was part of the deal.  I kept looking for a draft pick or picks or a future consideration going back Dallas’s way but nada.  Even though Niskanen was off to a slow start that year, he was still a good young defenceman with upside and he was still only 24 years old.  In fairness to Joe Nieuwendyk, Matt Niskanen wasn’t the player in 2011 that he is today but he was still a solid “young” player. 

At the time of the trade, James Neal had already put together three consecutive twenty plus goal seasons and he was already starting to get the look of a dangerous sniper.

Alex Goligoski had the look of a solid offensive defenceman albeit on a gifted scoring Pittsburgh team.  Goligoski was probably considered a decent prospect but he shot to prominence after a brilliant 2007-08 playoff run with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Pens top AHL affiliate.  In 23 games, he put up a scoring line of  4 goals, 24 assists for 28 points along with 18 pims.

In the fall of 2008, I’m pretty sure every “Fantasy GM” in basements and bars across North America thought they were the smartest guy in the room when they blurted out Goligoski’s name at their annual draft or player auction.  Goligoski became the big hidden gem in every fantasy hockey league that September/October.  I’m pretty sure the real NHL GM’s noticed too !!!

In my over imaginative warped mind, I see the trade conversation shaking down something like this.

Phone Conversation: 

Ray SheroHi Joe, it’s Ray Shero from the Penguins calling.

Joe Nieuwendyk Hey Ray, what can I do for you?

Ray Shero   I caught your team on satellite the other night and you seem to have a pretty good thing going on down there in “Big D”.   It’s just too bad you can’t get that powerplay going.  You really haven’t had a guy that could run your PP since Sergei Zubov retired have you?

Joe Nieuwendyk No Ray.   He was a special player and yes we could really use a guy like him today to quarterback our powerplay.

Ray Shero –  We’re fortunate.  We have a couple good ones and we could probably part with one.  We have some pretty good depth on the backend since we acquired Paul Martin this off-season. We could move one if the offer made sense for us.

 Joe Nieuwendyk I’d be very interested in that Letang kid.

Ray SheroWell, Joe that can’t happen because Bylsie really likes Letang’s right handed shot playing the left point with Malkin.  I was thinking more along the lines of Alex Goligoski.  He’s been real solid back there but we’d be willing to move him for some help up front.  I was thinking with Eriksson coming into his own and the Benn kid getting close you might be able to part with James Neal.

 Joe Nieuwendyk – Wow Ray, I’m not sure I can go there. 

 Ray Shero – Not a  problem Joe.  I figured I’d just throw it out there.  I’m sure your PP will probably turn around soon anyway (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).  If you’re interested though, don’t wait forever as we are going to shop Alex around as we really are looking for a “Top 6” forward. 

Now keep in mind, this is just my overactive imagination running wild.  No concrete evidence.   Just a massive amount of speculation on my part.

The seed has been planted and Ray Shero just sits back and waits.  Will the Dallas PP become a bit of a problem?  I have no historical data to say one way or another that the Stars PP was good, bad or indifferent at the time of the trade but the seed was planted and Goligoski’s value was trending upward.  I’m sure GM Joe Nieuwendyk sent his pro scouts to follow Pittsburgh around for a while and you know the Penguins were showcasing Goligoski.  He was on the first unit powerplay with all the Pens top players.  I’m sure the Penguins played him in situations where he could shine and succeed.

I don’t know what the tipping point was but the trade did happen and I don’t know for the life of me how Matt Niskanen was added to the deal.  In my opinion, the former first round draft pick was much too young to give up on.  Did the Pens ask for him or did the Stars give up on him?  I don’t know and to tell you the truth I don’t want to know.  I don’t think I would believe it anyway.

Hindsight is always a beautiful thing but I remember vividly saying at the time that this trade was highway robbery by the masked man named Ray Shero.  Not to repeat myself but the Pens would have won this deal if it was Neal for Goligoski straight up but the addition of Niskanen made it even worse for me.  Of course this is just my opinion but I’m pretty sure I am not alone.

I’m sure the Stars are very happy with Goligoski.  He has been a consistent point producer for Dallas and he plays meaningful minutes.  AND, you know that the Penguins are still grinning from ear to ear.  After a slow start in Pittsburgh, James Neal has but up two forty goal seasons (one pro-rated because of the lockout) and has given the Pens two dangerous scoring lines.  Matt Niskanen was the real bonus especially if you factor in his play this season.  

10 goals 36 assists  46 points with 51 pim and plus/minus of +33. 

Big time kudos to Ray Shero.  He pulled off a major league NHL heist in broad daylight.

I’ll say this in conclusion.  That trade would have been VETOED in my fantasy league and probably 100’s more around North America.  I wonder if the NHL has ever considered a veto process?


Some of you are probably wondering why a Winnipeg website blogger took the time to pen an article on a Pittsburgh/Dallas trade?  The answer is because our GM in Winnipeg is going into his fourth off season without making a player for player trade yet.  My wife pointed out that if I keep holding my breath waiting for a Winnipeg Jets player for player trade my head was going to explode and she didn’t want me to end it that way!!!!



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