LAS VEGAS – David Poile was in Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee’s shoes 19 years ago. The Nashville Predators were an expansion team and Poile, the only general manager the franchise has had, constructed their first roster by selecting one player from the NHL’s other 26 teams.
There were aging stars like Al Iafrate and Mike Richter. There were bright young goalies like Tomas Vokoun and Mike Dunham. There was a collection of scrappy forwards.
What wasn’t available to him? A player the caliber of the one he lost to the Golden Knights in their expansion draft on Wednesday.
“There were no James Neals available to the Nashville Predators when we started 20 years ago,” he said.
Neal, a 29-year-old who can play both wings, was one of the biggest names selected in the Vegas expansion draft. He played 219 games with the Predators since being acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2014. He scored 77 goals with 59 assists, and had 14 goals in 42 playoff games with them.
That offense made him an instant pick for the Knights, as did his contract: He’ll made $5 million against the cap next season, but then he goes unrestricted.
Whatever the future held for Neal in Nashville, in the short term Poile didn’t want to lose him from the defending Western Conference champions. But he was handcuffed by the NHL’s expansion draft parameters.
By protecting his top four defensemen, Poile could only protect four others skaters. Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen were obvious choices. The final spot came down to Calle Jarnkrok or Neal, and Poile opted to keep his young center with an enviable contract.
“The rules are the rules, and it didn’t line up correctly for us. The strength of our team in on defense,” he said.
“That hurts. This expansion process was painful for the Nashville Predators. There’s no way of getting out of it.”
But Poile tried. He called McPhee every day, trying to find a scenario in which the Knights would lay off Neal. “I tried, like a lot of people did who were more successful with it, to make a deal with George. But the price was just too high in my estimation,” he said.
And so James Neal is a Golden Knight, at least for the moment. He bid farewell on Twitter:
Thank you so much to the Predators organization, staff, fans and my teammates for the past three years!
— James Neal (@jneal_18) June 22, 2017
And Johansen bid farewell to him:
— Ryan Johansen (@RyanJohansen19) June 22, 2017
Deryk Engelland is a defenseman signed by Vegas who played with Neal on the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he agreed with Johansen’s evaluation.
“The guy can score from anywhere. And he’s a great guy to have around,” he said of Neal.
The Predators would have liked to have him around. It didn’t work out. And now they have to try and replace that offense.
“Whatever assets I didn’t give George to retain James, I still have those assets,” said Poile. “And now it’s on me and my staff to replace James and that starts when we head to Chicago at the draft, and then have the interview period for unrestricted free agents on July 1.”
As for his relationship with Neal after leaving him unprotected?
“We’re good. We’re on good terms,” said Poile. “But he didn’t want to go. I think he felt Nashville was a home for him.”
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