The James Neal trade almost didn’t happen.

During the 2011 season, Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Ray Shero and his staff decided to hunt for a long-term winger for Sidney Crosby. Their wish list characteristics resembled a hockey personal ad: early to mid-20′s, physical, good personality, fast skater, proven goal-scorer.

Of course, what GM wouldn’t want a player like that?

The list of candidates was short. The teams that possess those players don’t give them up very often. Shero had to be prepared with salary cap space and the right trade assets if and when one of the players on his list became available.

In January 2011, Dallas GM Joe Nieuwendyk expressed an interest in the Penguins’ abundance of puck-moving defensemen. Since the 2005 lockout, teams have come to appreciate the value of a smooth-skating defenseman that can create and join the offensive rush. Shero knew this. He was receiving calls from a number of GM’s asking for the same thing. But he also knew James Neal, a name on the Winger Wish List, was a member of the Dallas Stars.

Over the weekend of February 19, Shero and Nieuwendyk finally exchanged names.

In addition to their defensive need, the Stars were operating under a tight budget as they worked through bankruptcy. Any trade Nieuwendyk made would have to include significant salary going back to Pittsburgh because the team was hoping to re-sign Brad Richards before he hit free agency.

Dallas had a logjam of left-handed wingers fighting for playing time on the top two lines. Jamie Benn was all but untouchable. James Neal, on the other hand, was available at the right price.