Top Shelf: Kesler, Neal trades shake up draft weekend

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Updated: 6/28 1:08 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Florida Panthers surprised many folks by simply hanging on to the first overall selection and grabbing Aaron Ekblad, the standout defensive prospect of the 2014 NHL Draft.

Just because the No. 1 pick wasn't for sale, however, it didn't mean the rest of the league was done wheeling and dealing.

Anaheim and Vancouver kicked things off several hours before Round 1 began Friday night in Philadelphia, as the Ducks finally landed centerman Ryan Kesler, a player they had tried to pick up back at the trade deadline in March.

Kesler getting dealt was no surprise, but the same can't be said for the Pittsburgh Penguins and their decision to send James Neal packing to Nashville. It was the first big personnel move for new Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford since taking over for the fired Ray Shero, who was axed along with head coach Dan Bylsma after another disappointing postseason in Pittsburgh.

Neal was once believed to be a major steal for Shero, who picked up the sniping winger along with defenseman Matt Niskanen from Dallas for blueliner Alex Goligoski on Feb. 21, 2011. With Neal gone from the Steel City and Niskanen set to leave via free agency this summer, the trade doesn't seem as lopsided now as it once did.

The 26-year-olf Neal experienced tremendous peaks and valleys during his three-plus seasons in Pittsburgh. He reached the 40-goal mark in 2011-12 and managed to record 27 goals and 61 points in just 59 regular-season games in 2013-14. However, the Ontario native only managed two goals and two assists in 13 playoff games this spring as the Pens fell in the second round to the New York Rangers despite holding a 3-1 lead early in that series.

In addition to his 2014 postseason disappearance, Neal also developed the reputation as an undisciplined player during his tenure in Pittsburgh. He became prone to taking bad penalties and delivering the occasional dangerous hit.

Rutherford also alluded to Neal's contract playing a role in Friday's trade, which landed the Pens a pair of NHL forwards in Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Neal has four seasons left on a deal that carries an annual $5 million cap hit and also was set to have a no-movement clause kick in at the start of the 2015-16 season.

Hornqvist, a four-time 20-goal scorer for Nashville, carries an annual cap hit of $4.25 million through 2017-18. The 27-year-old Swede brings Pittsburgh a strong presence in front of the net, and the hope is Hornqvist can help on the power play while possibly replacing Neal on Evgeni Malkin's line. Spaling, meanwhile, is a restricted free agent who Rutherford hopes can bring some stability to Pittsburgh's group of bottom-six forwards.

"We were just trying to change the mix of our team and get a little different type of player," Rutherford said of the deal.

While Pittsburgh tries to figure out the best group of players to place around Malkin and Sidney Crosby, Nashville is trying to find itself one difference maker on offense. Now that Barry Trotz is out as head coach and replaced by the more offensive-minded Peter Laviolette, Neal becomes the highest-paid forward on a team which relies too much on defenseman Shea Weber to provide offensive punch.

Out West, the Kesler trade provided Anaheim with a big upgrade at the second- line center spot and also allowed the rebuilding Vancouver Canucks a chance to get younger while creating cap space. The Canucks gave up Kesler and a third- round pick to acquire forward Nick Bonino, 26, and defenseman Luca Sbisa, 24, while also claiming a first and third-round pick from Anaheim.

Like Pittsburgh, the Canucks also have a new GM in Jim Benning and he is ready to dive head-first into a youth movement. Benning also traded defenseman Jason Garrison on Friday to pick up the 50th overall pick from Tampa Bay, and on Saturday they dealt that pick to Los Angeles to acquire 22-year-old forward Linden Vey, who had five assists in 18 games as a rookie with the Kings in 2013-14.

In a draft year believed to be short on top-level talent, GMs like Benning and Rutherford (along with Anaheim's Bob Murray and Nashville's David Poile) chose to explore additional avenues to help improve their clubs.

Most of the players selected on Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia will have to wait a couple of years before making the jump to the NHL. The NHL players acquired via trade, however, will get a chance to prove themselves right away when the 2014-15 season kicks off in just a few months time.

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