Cory Schneider Andy Marlin/NHLI/Getty Images)With Cory Schneider the unquestioned starting goalie, the Devils' save percentage should improve.
The New Jersey Devils are so inclined to keep information in house that they didn’t reveal how many years Andy Greene's contract extension was for during the announcement of his deal being signed on Wednesday.

Contrast that against the Ottawa Senators, who announced the news of Robin Lehner's contract extension on Twitter (three years, $2.25 AAV) Thursday morning, while giving the details of each individual year’s salary.

Devils team president and GM Lou Lamoriello remains old-school. Naturally, when he was asked about any other roster changes between now and training camp, he wasn’t exactly giving up the blueprint.

He’s already been active this summer. He landed Mike Cammalleri to provide goal-scoring that was missing last season. He took a low-risk shot on Martin Havlat, with a one-year deal worth just $1.5 million. They’re two players who should help boost an offense that was strong possession-wise (52.6 percent Corsi for) but not so strong when it came to actually scoring goals (2.4 goals per game, No. 27 in the NHL).

“We acquired in my mind one absolutely pure goal-scorer. He’s scored everywhere he’s been,” Lamoriello said during a media conference call Wednesday. “Then we took what we might call a very upside risk on a player who has tremendous talent.”

Factor in long-term deals for arguably their two most important players in Cory Schneider and Andy Greene, and it’s been a productive offseason. What’s left?

“Changes can always take place,” Lamoriello said, which is about the extent of any information you’re getting from him.

He did confirm the thought process going into this offseason. The Devils might have been one of the unluckiest teams in hockey last season.
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The beauty of those working in hockey is that their passion for the sport runs just as high as those who cheer on the teams. It’s the middle of the summer, and even while some were relaxing at a cottage or in the mountains, they took a moment to answer one question fans love to debate: If you were starting a franchise from scratch and could choose from any current player in the NHL, who would be your top choice?

Who is, in essence, the NHL's top "franchise player"?

I asked a dozen NHL executives, coaches and players to send in their top five franchise picks, in order, then assigned point values for each vote to come up with an overall ranking.

They didn't disappoint.

“We have this debate on our staff,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “For me, there’s no clear-cut answer. I kept changing my list. If you called me tomorrow, this list might change.”

Some wanted to factor in contracts. One assistant GM wanted to turn back time in coming up with his final list.

“Can I get a young Pavel Datsyuk?” he joked.

To keep things simple, there were no other factors brought to the table. It was simply a request to pick the five best players to build a franchise around. In all, the panel is made up of four current team executives (assistant GM or GM), one former GM, four current head coaches, one respected assistant coach and a player from each conference. The ballot of one of the coaches was excluded from the point total because he preferred not to rank them in any particular order. (The excluded ballot looked like this: Jonathan Toews, Steven Stamkos, Drew Doughty, Shea Weber and Jamie Benn.)

Here are the overall results

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Ryan KeslerAP Photo/Chris SzagolaCould the Vancouver Canucks trend upward, despite the loss of Ryan Kesler?
The past two seasons the Anaheim Ducks have won consecutive Pacific Division titles, including a 116-point regular season last season that was topped only by the Boston Bruins.

The postseason success hasn’t been there but the team has won enough that some general managers might have been tempted not to mess with the roster too much. Not Bob Murray.

There might not be a more honest evaluator of his own players than Murray. He didn’t look at the near-miss against the Los Angeles Kings in Round 2 and say it was close enough.

He was concerned.

“We didn’t stack up against the big guys well enough to go any farther,” Murray said during a Wednesday phone conversation. “We had to change a few things.”

The addition of Ryan Kesler has been well documented. It was as good a move as anybody made this offseason, with the Ducks capitalizing on Kesler’s short list of destinations -- a credit to where they are as a franchise that Kesler limited the Canucks to Anaheim and Chicago.

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Mikhail GrabovskiG Fiume/Getty ImagesThe deal to land Mikhail Grabovski was a risky financial move for the Islanders.
Mikhail Grabovski has long had fans in the advanced stats community. He’s a guy who drives possession on bad possession teams, which earns him points in the world of analytics.

New York Islanders coach Jack Capuano was won over by Grabovski and close friend Nikolai Kulemin the more traditional route. On video. Lots of it.

“We watched a lot of tape,” Capuano said during a phone conversation this week. “I probably know those guys better than they know themselves.”

His conclusion?

“Grabovski is a guy we targeted a couple years ago. We really liked him. He’s got very good speed, intelligence, he’s a game-breaker,” Capuano said. “The one thing I like about him, he’s not afraid to go to those tough areas to score goals. That’s a big thing. There’s a lot of skill guys but you’ve got to pay the price. It’s the second and third pop that score.”

After the first wave of free agency washed over the NHL world, it was the Islanders who created the next biggest one in signing the duo of Grabovski and Kulemin to deals worth a total of $36.75 million.

It gave the Islanders another line of attack for Capuano to work with, and strengthens the team down the middle now with Grabovski teaming up with franchise center John Tavares and the under-appreciated Frans Nielsen.

While the move may end up being GM Garth Snow’s riskiest

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Alexey MarchenkoGlenn James/Getty ImagesAlexey Marchenko could take advantage of holes in the Red Wings' defense to get time in Detroit.
The Detroit Red Wings had just finished up their prospect camp in Traverse City, Michigan, and the frustration of striking out in free agency was nowhere to be found.

Instead, the optimism of youth was everywhere. There was Anthony Mantha, the big, talented winger making another strong impression on coaches and management following a season in juniors in which he scored 81 goals in 81 regular-season and playoff games.

The message to him from the Red Wings is that he has an opportunity in training camp to make the team, unusual for a club that rarely skips a step in the developmental cycle.

“Every player wants to rush the process,” Mantha said when we chatted after the camp. “It would be a lie telling you I want to play in [AHL] Grand Rapids next year. For sure, I want to start in Detroit.”

And then there was 22-year-old Russian defenseman Alexey Marchenko, absent from the ice but continuing to progress from the ankle injury that ended his AHL season. Detroit was unable to add a right-handed-shot defenseman in free agency, with Dan Boyle and Matt Niskanen picking the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, respectively, over Detroit.

Unless general manager Ken Holland pulls off a trade, which doesn't happen often during his summers, Marchenko has a chance to take advantage of the lack of right-handed shots in the Detroit defensive corps.

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Paul StastnyKarl Gehring/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesPaul Stastny's move from Colorado to St. Louis greatly altered two Central Division contenders.
The Nashville Predators' trade for James Neal had only been official for a few minutes when the questions started as to who would be the center feeding him the puck in Nashville. In Pittsburgh, he had his biggest success with Evgeni Malkin. In Dallas, he played well with Brad Richards.

GM David Poile stood behind a podium at the draft in Philadelphia and explained that the Predators' focus would be shifted to the middle of the ice now that they had acquired the scoring winger they needed.

The problem was, that was also the focus for half of the Western Conference. Ryan Kesler went to Anaheim. Brad Richards went to Chicago. Paul Stastny went to St. Louis. Jason Spezza went to Dallas.

Making things worse for the Predators, Mike Fisher was lost for four to six months with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

So when Poile got a call from Mike Ribeiro's agent suggesting he’d be a good fit with the Predators, he listened with an open mind.

“Mike has been a top center, he’s a veteran in his experience. Equally and more important, he was looking for a place to re-establish with his family,” Poile said when we chatted last week.

The last thing Poile wanted for his young group trying to establish itself with a new coach was distractions. He was well aware of the off-ice issues that led to Ribeiro’s departure in Arizona. So this wasn’t a normal hockey transaction.

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David Booth #7 of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates Derek Leung/Getty ImagesDavid Booth will finally take advantage of an offseason without injury.
Last summer, Mason Raymond didn’t sign his contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs until Sept. 23. He went on to score 19 goals and got a three-year deal with the Calgary Flames on July 1. Ron Hainsey completed his deal with the Carolina Hurricanes on Sept. 12, and the Canes were so pleased with his play he earned a three-year contract extension in June.

The late offseason was dotted with nice value deals signed by teams that took advantage of a tight cap space. Guys like Dustin Penner or Tim Thomas who weren’t snapped up in the initial frenzy ended up making contributions to their teams both during the season and at the trade deadline.

It’s gone quiet right now in hockey, but teams are now starting to look at the best of what’s left on the free-agent market. Nashville grabbed two centers this week, Derek Roy and Mike Ribiero. The New York Rangers gave a two-year deal to Matthew Lombardi.

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Jonathan ToewsBill Wippert/NHLI via Getty ImagesNew contracts for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews can pave the way for other NHL stars.
The new deals for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews make them the highest paid players in the NHL on an annual-average basis.

How long will that last? That’s up for debate.

The Kane and Toews contracts came in right about where you’d expect. What it means moving forward is it gives future franchise players closing in on unrestricted free agency a new baseline in which to negotiate. To one agent, who has a prominent player who could be in extension talks next summer, it’s confirmation that teams believe the cap will be going up every bit as aggressively as the players believe.

“People are in agreement the cap is going up,” he said. “You’re probably looking at $80 million in a couple years. That’s a clear indication that there are teams that believe it as well.”

The other thing that stood out to this agent?

“It was pretty interesting in the way they structured it. If you did present value, it’s closer to eight times $11 million. Getting the money up front,” he said.

His conclusion on the value of the deals?

“I think it’s dead on,” he said. “It’s healthy for the league. I know a lot of free agents coming up saw that and were like ‘Perfect.’”

Kane and Toews are unique in that they were slated to hit unrestricted free agency in their primes, which doesn’t happen for franchise players anymore with so many locked up long-term. There aren’t many who will be in that position the next couple years, but here’s a look at players who will ultimately be impacted by the Kane and Toews contracts in the next couple years:

1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning -

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Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Slava Voynov, Robyn RegehrCary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsA lack of team chemistry was detrimental to the Sharks during this year's Stanley Cup run.
San Jose Sharks general manager Doug Wilson had been so open about his offseason plans that he seemed a little surprised when he was asked for further details at the draft.

“I can’t be any more honest than I have been,” he said. “What did I leave out?”

Really, nothing.

It just seems hard to grasp from the outside. The Sharks put up 111 regular-season points, more than both Chicago and Los Angeles. They jumped to a 3-0 lead in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs against Los Angeles before the Kings came charging back to win the series. It was a devastating moment but one that doesn’t look quite as damning after the Kings went on to win the Stanley Cup in impressive fashion.

If Marc-Edouard Vlasic (knee) is healthy and the Sharks get a little bit better goaltending in Round 1, they probably finish the job. And then who knows?

It seemed like a pretty easy fix. Bring in another top-four defenseman in place of Dan Boyle, who was traded, upgrade your goaltender, and take another stab at it next season.

Up close, it was a different story.

“When you watch that series, when [the Kings] dug down deeper, we had players trying to do it themselves,” Wilson said. “We missed Vlasic, he was our most irreplaceable player. I can’t avoid the truth of that. Then you watched the odd-man rushes given up. Game 5 in our building -- they re-established their game. We looked like we never played together.”

It got only worse after that.

“We kind of unraveled. That’s when it showed its head,” Wilson said.

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Mike Green, James Reimer & Evander KaneGetty ImagesTeams that missed out in free agency could look to Mike Green, James Reimer or Evander Kane.
While holding court with reporters in Philadelphia after the draft, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz explained how he saw the next week or so playing out. He anticipated very little serious trade talk until teams figured out how they did in free agency.

Then would come the next step.

“I don’t think you’ll see many trades until after July 6,” he predicted.

At the time, he wasn’t armed with the information we know now: namely, that the first day of free agency would be completed at a breakneck pace, where clubs would spend half a billion dollars to improve their teams.

As the dust settles and teams examine what’s left on the open market, they might want to speed up Trotz’s timeline. Not much is left, and the trade route is the best way to add an impact player at this point. One agent who has a remaining player drawing interest on the free-agent market said he suspects general managers have now shifted more focus on to trades.

“The sense I get are teams, after going at warp speed yesterday, took a deep breath last night and are settling into ‘Where are we at?’ mode,” he said. "I suspect there’s a lot of trade talk going on today, where yesterday there was not a lot because they were focused on getting to the UFAs [unrestricted free agents].”

Considering the huge haul on defense that Trotz and Washington landed in free agency, Capitals GM Brian MacLellan may be the target of his colleagues looking to pick at some of the surplus on defense in Washington.

“I think it’s harder now to trade than ever before,” Trotz said. “The dollars have to line up, and the fits have to line up.”

With that in mind, here’s a look at players who could be on the move as the NHL offseason shifts into its next phase:

Mike Green, D, Washington Capitals

There was heavy demand on the market for defensemen who are a right-handed shot, and guys like Matt Niskanen, Dan Boyle, Anton Stralman and Tom Gilbert got snapped up quickly. Now, with the massive spending on defense in Washington, it’s fair to wonder if the Capitals would consider an offer on their righty Mike Green.

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Brooks Orpik, Paul Stastny & Jonas Hiller Getty ImagesThe new deals for Brooks Orpik, Paul Stastny and Jonas Hiller met with very different reactions.
The opening hours of NHL free agency were truly frenetic, with signings being announced in a flurry shortly after noon ET.

Some teams made their mark ahead of time -- the Anaheim Ducks and Dallas Stars made major upgrades down the middle by trading for Ryan Kesler and Jason Spezza, respectively -- but for the rest of the teams that made impact signings, it's time to grade just how well they did for themselves on Day 1.

Note that these grades reflect the talent and fit of the players signed, as well as the reported length and dollars in their deals.

Buffalo Sabres: C-plus

The Sabres are in the midst of a massive rebuilding project under GM Tim Murray, but it was important for him to surround the young talent with veteran leaders who can help break them in to the NHL. In former Canadiens captain Brian Gionta (three years, $12.75 million) and Matt Moulson (five years, $25 million) the Sabres have done exactly that.

Neither player is the kind of impact player who is going to put the Sabres in any danger of spoiling the Connor McDavid sweepstakes, but both are quality players and individuals who will help Ted Nolan instill a professional culture in Buffalo. The Sabres also inked Andrej Meszaros to a one-year deal that’s a pricey $4.125 million. On the bright side, he gives them more trade ammunition at the deadline.

Calgary Flames: C

The Deryk Engelland contract (three years, $8.7 million) was immediately criticized, considering he’s a borderline No. 6 defenseman on a good team. That’s a lot of dough for that kind of player, but at the same time, the reality is that teams in Calgary’s position have to pay a premium to land anyone on the first day of free agency, and there was competition for his services.

“There are lots of teams after him,” said one source close to Engelland on the eve of free agency. And, he certainly fits the truculent identity Brian Burke and GM Brad Treliving are trying to build in Calgary, along with bringing strong character. The Flames may not make the playoffs, but they’ll be miserable to play against. Landing a starting goalie in Jonas Hiller on such a short term (two years at a total of $9 million) helps make up for the questionable Engelland deal.

Chicago Blackhawks: A

Considering the high price his counterparts paid to address their needs at center, Chicago GM Stan Bowman deserves credit for bringing in Brad Richards on a one-year deal worth just $2 million.

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The deal

Stars get: Jason Spezza, Ludwig Karlsson

Senators get: Alex Chiasson, Alex Guptill, Nicholas Paul and 2015 second-round pick


Dallas Stars: A+

When GM Jim Nill first arrived in Dallas, his immediate priority was strengthening the team down the middle. No easy task in a league where everybody from Anaheim to Winnipeg is looking to fortify their center position. Now, in just two offseasons, he’s built a team that has Tyler Seguin centering the top line and Jason Spezza anchoring the second line. That’s impressive.

He’s done it without trading a single first-round pick, an important distinction for a GM who still believes he’s building this team through drafting and player development.

Spezza has his flaws. For one, he has trouble staying on the ice and a player with a history of back problems comes with risk. Second, he was ill-suited as the captain of the Senators -- although this is something that won’t be an issue in Dallas, where Jamie Benn has grown into the leader -- and isn’t necessarily the strong two-way center other top centers are in the West. He’s a rental, in that he’s entering the final year of his contract, but even that has its advantages. Spezza has a $7 million cap charge, which isn’t an issue for a team like the Stars who haven’t been a cap team. But the final year of his deal carries an actual salary of just $4 million, no small consideration for a budget team in Dallas.

According to an NHL source, a contract extension with Dallas wasn’t discussed as part of this deal. If it doesn’t work out for whatever reason in Dallas, Nill can always spin him at the 2015 trade deadline, when contending teams will better be able to fit his high cap number because it will be pro-rated at midseason.

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Paul StastnyKarl Gehring/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesPaul Stastny's destination in free agency could shift the balance of power in the Western Conference.
Editor's note: This column posted prior to Paul Stastny agreeing to a four-year, $28 million deal with the Blues.

It’s the one day a year teams that can close the gap on the NHL’s best without giving up an asset outside of cap space. The prices today at the start of free agency are going to be inflated -- and GMs are going to be a little uneasy about it -- but that’s how it goes when parity rules and there’s a gap to erase between the best and those trying to catch them.

There’s no better example of this than the battle to fortify the center position in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Kings are set, with four high-end centers, anchored by Anze Kopitar. The Anaheim Ducks took care of their business early with the Ryan Kesler trade. The Chicago Blackhawks have an advantage simply because they have Jonathan Toews.

That leaves teams in the middle such as the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators, Winnipeg Jets, Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild figuring out the best ways to counterattack these powerhouses down the middle.

Today becomes a critical day in that effort, with Paul Stastny in the middle of it.

Stastny is the best center available, the only one on the free agent market who can be in the same conversation as some of these other elite Olympians. Where he ends up could help shift the power of the West.

His agent, Matt Keator, has said he’ll give the Avalanche the opportunity to match any offers out there, and Stastny loves playing in Colorado, so they still have that edge. If it’s not them, the Blues are the other leaders. Chicago is a wild card if GM Stan Bowman decides he’s willing to make the space for him.

That puts pressure on the other Western Conference teams to find a way to keep pace with the contenders at center.

“I can’t control that part,” said Stars GM Jim Nill, who is on the prowl for a center. “Of course, you have to keep up with them. Maybe our 'keeping up' is our kids getting better. We can’t speed up our process. That’s when we get in trouble. If I try to speed this up... that’s where you get in trouble.”

In Minnesota, GM Chuck Fletcher has a similar philosophy. He saw strides from Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula last season, and Haula played really well for the Wild in the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeWild
Hannah Foslien/Getty ImagesWild rookie Erik Haula had five points during the six-game series against the Blackhawks.
The Wild may close the gap, not by entering the arms race at center, but by strengthening the team around incumbents Mikko Koivu, Granlund and Haula. They have cap space, would like to add help on defense and for the right price (and term) will be in on Thomas Vanek.

The complication with the Wild is that they have restricted free agent contract negotiations coming over the course of the next couple years with Nino Niederreiter, Jason Zucker, Haula, Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Jonas Brodin and others. With Zach Parise and Ryan Suter already locked in long term, Fletcher will be trying to lure players without a big appetite to match some of the term other teams will offer.

“Our fear is going out too far with too many players, without knowing what the young guys are going to cost us,” Fletcher said. “What exactly is the role? Last year by the end of the playoffs, we had Niederreiter and Coyle on the second line. We had Pominville and Parise on another line. If you’re fitting someone in, how does that change our lines? There’s a lot into this.”

In Winnipeg, they made a bid for Stastny, but according to colleague Pierre LeBrun, didn’t find themselves on the pared-down final list.

Like the others, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is leaning on drafting and developing, but he’s also open to being creative to find other ways to fill their need at center.

“You’re looking at free agency, a lot of times those things aren’t necessarily there for everybody. Someone might get the couple players that are there. You look at it from a trade perspective,” Cheveldayoff said. “Sometimes you end up staring at it. It’s something you’re consciously trying to do, but there are only opportunities maybe to do it at different times. Nothing is ever final. You’re always looking.”

The Stastny domino is a key one, but there are a lot of other moving parts as free agency gets rolling at noon ET today:

• Vanek was offered some monster contracts from Buffalo and the Islanders, but has been insistent since day one that he’s going to test the market. While the preference is always to go long-term for the player, that won’t be a deal-breaker for him today. If there’s a fit on a team Vanek is comfortable with, he’s willing to go shorter on the term of the deal.

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EhroffFrederick Breedon/Getty ImagesAfter being bought out, Christian Ehrhoff has risen near the top of many teams' shopping lists.
Initially unable to finalize a deal to send Sam Gagner to the Arizona Coyotes from Tampa Bay, Arizona GM Don Maloney came up with a plan with Steve Yzerman.

“I said, ‘I’m going to have a beer. You have a glass of wine,’” Maloney said. “If you can come up with an idea, call me back.”

Internally, the Coyotes concluded that if the Tampa Bay Lightning could retain enough salary on Gagner, he was the guy they wanted. But they couldn’t do it otherwise.

A determined Yzerman made it happen. He kept one-third of Gagner's salary; that is better than buying him out, which was likely the other option.

And now, the question for Tampa Bay is this: What was all of this for?

With the trades, the Lightning have an additional $5.65 million in cap space after sending Teddy Purcell to Edmonton, Gagner and B.J. Crombeen to the Coyotes and Nate Thompson to the Anaheim Ducks. According to CapGeek.com, the Lightning now have $9.5 million in cap space, and that’s before they put Mattias Ohlund on long-term injured reserve. In October, the Lightning will have even more flexibility.

It makes the Lightning one of the most fascinating teams to watch when free agency finally opens on Tuesday at noon ET.

A couple of factors may provide clues as to exactly what the Lightning are looking for. Colleague Pierre LeBrun reported that the Lightning made a push for the No. 1 overall pick before the draft in Philadelphia. It was the package that came closest to making Panthers GM Dale Tallon pull the trigger.

The prize of the draft was potential franchise defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who would give the Lightning a pretty darn good one-two punch with Victor Hedman and complements his style quite well.

The other factor, and it might have been absolutely coincidental, is that the Lightning cleared their cap space on the same day that defenseman Christian Ehrhoff became available.

The Sabres processed the buyout on the 31-year-old defenseman, and he immediately joined Matt Niskanen, Anton Stralman and Dan Boyle as the best defensemen available in free agency. For a weak class, those are pretty good options.

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The deal

Predators get: James Neal

Penguins get: Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling


Nashville Predators: B

Predators GM David Poile needed to upgrade his offense under new head coach Peter Laviolette, and landing James Neal certainly does it. He immediately becomes one of the most prolific scorers the team has had.

In 199 games with the Penguins, Neal averaged 0.45 goals per game, which works out to be 37 goals over the course of an 82-game season. Part of that production is the benefit that comes with playing with Evgeni Malkin, with Sidney Crosby drawing the toughest matchups. The Predators don’t currently have the kind of playmaking center that Neal thrives with, and we’ll find out just how much offense he can generate without one.

Before playing in Pittsburgh, he played a lot with Brad Richards in Dallas, another high-end passer. Also, this is the second time that Neal -- who is a 40-goal scorer -- has been traded before the age of 27, which raises the question as to why teams are so willing to move him. There were concerns about his hockey IQ in Dallas, and it still shows in the form of unwise penalties.

He also wasn’t particularly productive during the playoffs this last season, scoring just twice in 13 games before the Penguins were knocked out by the Rangers. That said, the price Nashville paid for Neal was less than you’d expect for a 40-goal scorer.

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