Using the sometimes uncreative vocabulary of the sport, this was a "hockey trade."
In other words, one team wasn't trading to lower its payroll or to add prospects prospect. Each franchise was trying to improve its team in the immediate sense.
On Feb. 21, 2011, the Penguins traded defenseman Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars in exchange for left winger James Neal and Matt Niskanen.
Essentially, the Penguins had too many defenseman and not enough wingers while the Stars had too many wingers and not enough defensemen.
Since then, Neal has developed from a 20-goal threat to a 40-goal first-team all-star while Niskanen's career has rebounded after floundering in Dallas. For Dallas, Goligoski has gone from a bottom pairing defensman to a top-two defenseman who commands ice time in all situations for the Stars.
With the NHL's trade deadline approaching April 3, a variety of deals could be made but it's doubtful too many will be "hockey trades."
The general managers who agreed to this trade - Ray Shero of the Penguins and Joe Nieuwendyk of the Stars - talked to the Post-Gazette in recent months about how the transaction came about and about the development of the players they received.
Who approached who initially?
Shero – "I honestly don’t recall. What I recall, it was a matter of keeping touch with certain [general managers] and if they’re looking something. That’s the best I can recall as to how it actually started. Just like any trade. A guy gets back to you after you have some conversations and then it moves on from there. He probably has a better recollection than me."
Nieuwendyk - "I think I approached Ray, if my memory serves me correctly. They had some injuries. I think they were looking for a forward that could score and we certainly had our eye on Alex as well because he as kind of playing in the shadows of the players they had there and our scouts really liked the talent. It seemed like a good fit."
At what point did you recognize the player(s) you wanted for your organization?
Shero – "I think it was well before that deal. You look around different teams and depth charts. The beauty to that deal for both teams is that we had a need and they had a need. Looking at their NHL roster, the certainly had skilled forwards on the wings. We probably had one extra guy were we had some puck-moving [defensemen] so that happened to be the fit. So it was a need for both teams. And it’s hard to find that. It’s hard to find a young guy that can potentially score goals. And it’s very difficult to find a puck mover like Goligoski that can play the power play, play over 20 minutes and maybe put up 50 points. That happened to the match. We happened to have one extra defense. The had one extra up front. And that’s really the basis for the trade."
Nieuwendyk - "We’ve been kind of looking for somebody since Sergei Zubov retired. The way the game is played now, you really have to move pucks. We were really struggling in that area. Obviously, you have to give up something to get something. We gave up a good, young player in James Neal but we had a real serious need for a defenseman that could log some minutes, move pucks for us and contribute offensively."
How long did it take from initial discussions to making the trade official?
Shero – "I’d be guessing if I said a couple of weeks possibly that we were in touch. It wasn’t a long drawn-out process I can’t recall. I’d say once it got serious, it still took two or three days to go back and forth and make sure because it was an important move for both team. You’re moving NHL players around – important NHL players – to your team. Both sides probably want to talk to their [staff] they’re relying. I remember having a final two or three conversations with Joe as to what was important to me. It was like any other deal when it gets down to it."
Nieuwendyk - "I think (after) we had initial discussions about it, all in all … I would say maybe we took a month or month and a half. Maybe a month and a half to two months. We were having discussions quite a bit through that time period."
When did Matt Niskanen come into the conversation?
Shero – "I’m not sure if he fell out of favor with the coach in Dallas at the time but that as another part of the conversation. From my standpoint, if we had moved Goligoski, I had to go out and get another defenseman to fill that. There’s somewhat of a premium on a puck-moving [defenseman] that can score 50 points. In that case if [Niskanen] was the odd-man out on the coaching staff and Goligoski was the man they wanted so for them, moving Matt Niskanen was probably a fresh start for him. It was a fresh start for his career. For that, Matt should be thankful to Dallas. They put him in the deal to finalize something or else I had to go looking for a defenseman somewhere which I really wasn’t comfortable doing."
Nieuwendyk - "I think fairly early on. Matt was important to be in the deal for them because they were losing a guy like Alex and we were willing to part with him to get Alex."
At what point did the player(s) you received feel comfortable with their new team?
Shero – "I thought Matt adjusted pretty well. When he came in, he was playing important minutes for us. He had to adjust playing the left side at times. I thought Matt was a pretty adjustment. It was pretty difficult to tell because we had so many critical injures the second half of that season, it was really hard to identify with in terms of James’ game. You scored one goal in 20 [regular season] games. Obviously he scored the big overtime goal in [Game 4 of the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinal series against Tampa Bay]. We were confident in the player we traded for. From his work in junior to the NHL, we felt he was a player on the rise. He just wanted to get comfortable the following [season]. I think he looks back, that first goal which banked in the following year [in the season opening game at Vancouver], it was a weight off his shoulders. Even after that initial 20-something games where it didn’t go well for James, we still felt he was a good young player. [Evgeni Malkin] came back and had an MVP season and was a real good fit with James."
Nieuwendyk - "He gelled right away. The adjustment period was real smooth for him. Just a quality person and he fit right in with our [defensive] crew and he gave us heavy minutes. He produced offensively for us right away."
In a private moment, do you ever wish you had the player(s) you traded back?
Shero – "Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I see him play in Dallas and see what he can do and the minutes he’s playing there. He’s an important part of their team. He was a healthy scratch [earlier this season] and my response was, ‘big deal.’ He’s a hell of a player. They know what they have there. That’s why they signed him to a contract extension. They know how difficult it is to get players like that. You’re not going to get a guy like James Neal with nothing. That’s why the value of Alex Goligoski was there. I had a lot of teams ask me about Alex Goligoski. And this was the one that made sense because of the age of James Neal and with getting a player like Niskanen back in the deal. That’s why the Pittsburgh-Dallas deal should be good for both teams long term because we both got what we were looking for."
Nieuwendyk - "What it allowed us to do is to really give players like Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson more prominent roles. We’ve gone through a lot of change over the last few years with Brad Richards having moved on and Mike Modano before him. James was another guy that obviously was a young guy that had potential to put up some numbers he did with Brad Richards and he was going to have that opportunity playing with the types of players he was going to play with in Pittsburgh. We knew we were giving up on a good young player but our [defense] on the back end was a higher priority for us."
At what point did you feel comfortable extending contract extensions to the player(s) you received?
Shero - "I think once you saw they were comfortable with our team last year, you got to know their personalities a bit more. This last summer was a big step for a big step for Matt Niskanen in his career in terms of his training and in terms of seeing where his career and where he could possible take it. James Neal, last year he came back. From the onset, he started to become a very important player for us and realized at the end of the year, he would be a Group II [free agent] with arbitration rights. We talked with his agent for a while. It took a few months actually. But it ended as a deal for six years that both James and the team were happy with. But no matter what with anybody, if you’re extending someone for five, six, seven years, you get a little nervous. And maybe they get a little nervous too, thinking this is a long time to tie myself up for. I think we both look back and realize this is a good place for James Neal. The same thing for Matt Niskanen. He ‘s been a real good fit here. A good cultural fit for us. And Alex has been a good for Dallas."
Nieuwendyk - "We have a lot of faith in Alex. I think he’s ready to take the next step and become a leader of that [defensive] crew back there. He’s a real smooth skater. He can play the point on the power play. He can do a lot of things for us. We paid him accordingly. We believe he’ll be here to do those things for us."
(Photos: Claus Andersen/Getty Images, Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images, Christian Petersen/Getty Images and Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)