Playoff hockey gives us fans a chance to watch the best players on the planet compete for the most storied trophy in sports. It gives us playoff beards or horrible attempts at playoff beards (I’m looking at you Sidney). It gives us enough Pierre McGuire stories about junior hockey players to make us feel uncomfortable. And it gives us a chance to watch a soon-to-be free agent showcase his talents while adding zeroes to his paycheck. It’s basically the opposite of what Thomas Vanek is doing with the Montreal Canadiens right now.
The 30-year old Austrian winger is set to hit unrestricted free agency this summer after the expiration of his current contract which carries a cap hit in excess of $7.1 million. Take a look at his career numbers and you know what you’re getting from Vanek…around 30 goals and 70 points. That production is nothing to sneeze at in a league where goal-scoring remains at a premium. That production is worth big money.
But look beyond the numbers with Vanek. What are you getting? The man is an elite talent, no question. When he’s on his game (or maybe more accurately, when he shows a pulse), he can dangle with the best of them and make any defender look foolish. He can see the play develop in the offensive zone and thread a pass that makes you question if the man has eyes in the back of his head. And his shot? A laser.
I had the opportunity to watch Vanek plenty this year up close after he was traded to the Islanders. After a small adjustment period, he finally found a home on a line with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo and the three of them made sweet music together. For about a five-week period leading up to the Olympic break, there wasn’t a trio more dangerous in the offensive zone. Each brought a unique skill set that complimented the other two perfectly and Islander fans starting envisioning a long-term future with Vanek in the blue and orange. Yeah, everyone noticed his over-passing and reluctance to shoot in some situations. And yes, he was never going to win a Selke award. But he was destined to score in bunches. Surely the impending free agent would see it too and sign on the dotted line, right?
Well, not quite. See, there was the not-so-secret rumors out there that Vanek was itching to play with the Minnesota Wild where he and his wife have ties to the area (apparently only Garth Snow didn’t hear them). So when Vanek turned down a reported seven-year, $50 million to stay with the Islanders, the team made no reservations that it would be auctioning off their most coveted asset. And not surprisingly, Vanek, stuck on a dead-end team in a dead-end situation, started to struggle. And then the questions came- is he dogging it? Is he really worth all that money? Can he be counted on it a big spot?
To no one’s surprise, Vanek finally got another chance to prove his doubters wrong at the trade deadline when the Canadiens stole Vanek for a pittance. The winger did what he always did, produced, and helped Montreal secure a playoff berth. A big performance on the biggest of stages was the only thing left for Vanek to secure the massive contract he sought, well in excess of what he was already offered.
The only problem is that through 13 playoff games, Vanek is flopping. Yes, his numbers aren’t terrible, but just about everything else is. He’s wavered between top line minutes, fourth line minutes, and flat-out being benched. His play for much of the playoffs has bordered on “apathetic” and “embarrassing.” Two plays from game two against the Rangers summed up all the negatives about Vanek: the first play was on the Rangers tying goal which saw Vanek abandon his defensive position, stick in the air, just long enough for Ryan McDonagh to get a shot off that found its way to the back of the net. The second play was watching Vanek get behind the defense for what appeared to be a breakaway…but instead of getting a shot off on Henrik Lundqvist, Vanek threw a blind pass to no one in particular in front of the net. Everyone questioning Vanek and the money he’ll command had all the proof they needed with just those two plays. A search of Canadien-fan message boards for the name “Thomas Vanek” doesn’t lead to many happy thoughts about the talented winger.
Whereas Ville Leino used a few big playoff runs with the Flyers to grab a massive payday from the Sabres (amazingly there are still three years left on that deal…it’s like a VD that every Sabre fan is infected with), Vanek is potentially costing himself significant money. Was that seven-year, $50 million offer from the Islanders the best Vanek was going to see? Did Mike Milbury have an intelligent thought by saying Vanek turning down the Islanders was the best thing for the Islanders?
We honestly don’t know. While it appears that Vanek is blowing his opportunity, it only takes one general manager to be convinced he is the missing piece and throw a huge contract in front of him. We’ve seen it before and we’ll see it again because if there’s one thing that we do know, it’s that general managers love spending their owners’ money. Will Minnesota look to add the former Gopher? Do the Islanders, looking to make a splash before their move to Brooklyn, put their toe in the water again with Vanek? Is there a playoff team out there that is in need of a roster makeover and think Vanek can be part of the solution?
Based on what we know, Minnesota makes the most sense. They’ll have Dany Heatley’s contract coming off their books and can give that money to Vanek instead. On paper it helps the Wild shore up their scoring and allows Vanek to play in a role he is better suited for…a complimentary one. Presumably he and his family will be happy in the land of ten thousand lakes.
While it looks like he may not get the money he reportedly turned down already, all it takes is a few good playoff games here down the stretch and he’ll have general managers lining for his services. With the Montreal fans looking for a scapegoat, we’ll see what Thomas Vanek is really made of now.