Isles’ Vanek Ordeal Finally Ends at Trade Deadline: How Did We Get Here?


“Thomas Vanek was traded to the Montreal Canadiens for a mid-level prospect and a conditional draft pick. Why wasn’t the return greater?”

When General Manager Garth Snow pulled the trigger on a trade to bring Thomas Vanek to the Islanders in October, the Isles were a recent playoff team that had gotten off to a mediocre 4-4-3 start. The trade was expected to give the team a boost to the next level and help it get deeper into the playoffs.

The deal saw the Isles ship off fan favorite Matt Moulson (along with a 2014 first and 2015 second round draft pick) to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Vanek, a two-time forty goal scorer.

After the deal went through, the public learned that the 2014 first round pick Snow traded could be deferred to 2015, if the Islanders finished low enough in the standings for the pick to be in the top 10 in 2014.

The Islanders struggled to win games after the trade, but that was never something that could be blamed on Vanek. Even though the team only won 20 of the 47 games played while Vanek was an Islander, Vanek produced 44 points in those games.

He was also part of the hottest line in the league, along with Kyle Okposo and John Tavares. Various weak areas of the team were in evidence throughout the failed season, but the first line was never in that category.

It’s easy for fans to clamor for a defensive upgrade, a look at trade history shows the impossibility of that: Top-4 defensemen aren’t available in the NHL trading market. Except for mid-to-low-level players, very few of them get moved during the season.

Impact defensemen either get signed to long-term contracts with their current teams, or choose where they want to play on the free agent market.

Possibly Snow could have upgraded the goaltending, but he chose to stick with Nabokov – who had done a lot to get the Isles to the playoffs the year before.

Snow chose to upgrade the team up front by obtaining a sniper. The one black cloud hanging over the Isles all season was the $50 (or maybe $60 or $70) million dollar question: Will Vanek sign with the Islanders long-term, or will he become a free agent at the end of the season?

That question was answered on February 3rd, when Vanek turned down the Islanders’ offer to extend him. According to Newsday’s Arthur Staple, Vanek rejected a contract “believed to be in a range similar to Vanek’s current deal, a seven-year, $50-million.”

Could the Islanders have offered more, perhaps $60 or $70 million, over the maximum 8-year term? It’s possible they did, and it’s also possible that it wasn’t what Vanek wanted.

It’s no secret that he has ties to Minnesota. It’s where he went to college and met his wife, who comes from Minnesota. It’s been said they own a house there. Conveniently, the Wild have a large contract coming off their books in the form of Dany Heatley.

These days, we expect professional athletes to follow the money to the highest bidder. But for a player who’s already made close to $52 million in the NHL, as reports about Vanek, signing with the highest bidder may not be the most attractive option.

It’s possible that he would rather take less money and go where he’s happiest. In all likelihood, Vanek’s next deal will net him at least another $40-$60 million.

In other words, even with a hometown discount he would still be incredibly wealthy, and he might feel it would be better for his family.

Was it an error in judgment to obtain a player in the final year of his deal? In hindsight, now that he hasn’t signed, it may seem that way. But even though the Islanders have a poor history of signing free agents, there’s another way this can be viewed. History suggests that players who wouldn’t have signed with the Islanders in free agency have often decided they like Long Island once they’re here.

The two most recent examples of this are Lubomir Visnovsky and Evgeni Nabokov. Both players originally fought coming to the Islanders when they had to, but after playing and living on Long Island they decided to sign extensions and remain here.

Vanek has spoken at length about liking Long Island and enjoying his time with the Islanders. He also said there’s a far greater chance that he will sign with the Islanders in the offseason now that he’s played for the team, but that his ultimate desire is to test the free agent market regardless.

He likes Long Island, he has a good relationship with his teammates, and he has chemistry with one of the best players in the game. It’s still possible that if a deal doesn’t work out with Minnesota or his other top choices, he might consider signing with the Isles. But if he hadn’t been here this year, there would have been next to no chance of that at all.

The back-up plan for the Islanders was that if they couldn’t sign Vanek, they would trade him to a projected playoff team looking for offense. Fans hoped that by trading a player of his caliber, the team could recover the 1st round pick they gave up to get him, and also acquire a player or top prospect. That appeared to be the price Snow set for teams looking to acquire Vanek.

Snow had a lot to offer: He had a proven goal-scorer who could make an impact on any team looking to make a deep playoff run, one of the few players available in that category.

The problem was that when the news leaked that Vanek had rejected the Isles’ offer, Snow lost his advantage. Every general manager in the league knew that Snow had to move Vanek before the trade deadline or risk losing Vanek over the summer for absolutely nothing.

If Vanek’s production as an Islander helped increase his value, other issues hurt. The Sochi Olympics were supposed to be a showcase for the NHL’s best talent, but Vanek left his game in North America. He produced only 1 assist and was a -4 in 4 unimpressive Olympic games.

To make matters worse, he was part of a group of Austrian players who made news by partying until 6am two nights before Austria’s 4-0 loss to Slovenia that eliminated Austria from medal contention.

Austria’s Head Coach Manny Viveiros “chose Vanek as team Captain to have an experienced player and this obviously went wrong,” said Austrian Ice Hockey Federation President Kalt.

Those words, combined with a lackluster eight scoreless games leading up to Vanek’s final game as an Islander, didn’t sit well with GMs around the league as the trade deadline approached.

As the clock ticked down to 3PM on deadline day, Snow still hadn’t found anyone willing to meet his asking price for Vanek. There were also several other talented forwards clouding the trade market.

Marian Gaborik and Matt Moulson went to the LA Kings and the Minnesota Wild, respectively, eliminating both teams as possibilities for Vanek. Calgary’s Mike Cammallari, who stayed put, was also on the block.

Most importantly, the addition of Ryan Kesler to the trading block, a proven playoff performer and heart-and-soul type player, knocked Vanek off his perch as the most coveted asset at the deadline. He ended up staying in Vancouver, but his presence in the discussions lowered Vanek’s value and the amount of interest he received.

According to Snow, in the end he was forced to settle for the best offer he got. Vanek was traded to Montreal for 20-year-old Swedish winger Sebastian Collberg, an early second round pick in 2012 who many teams saw as first round talent. Snow claims the Isles had Collberg targeted at that draft as well, but were forced to look elsewhere when he was chosen by Montreal just one pick before the Islanders took Ville Pokka.

The trade includes a conditional second round pick in 2014 if Montreal makes the playoffs, which is a relatively safe bet at this time. Montreal sits in second place in the Atlantic Division with 77 points, three points ahead of Toronto.

Some fans, and media members, reacted angrily to a report from TSN’s Bob MacKenzie claiming that other GMs felt they had made better offers for Vanek, only to find that Snow and the Isles didn’t want to retain salary to make the deal happen.

Newsday’s Arthur Staple, who has more access to the Isles’ brass than anyone, clarified this for his readers in a live chat Friday after speaking with MacKenzie himself.

MacKenzie explained that those “better offers” did not include the Isles paying a portion of Vanek’s salary. Instead, all of these offers included players coming back to the Islanders in the form of a salary dump.

“Those teams were offering players off their roster with decent salaries and not much future,” explained Staple.

When all is said and done, judgment on the Vanek trade will have to be reserved for a few years. The 20-year-old Collberg is a boy playing in a league with grown men, something that should be taken into consideration when looking at his underwhelming stats.

Possibly he’ll play in Bridgeport next year, where he can be evaluated among other prospects in a more appropriate setting.

Another important note: Second round picks can be valuable to teams who need to unload players from their roster at the draft, so maybe that pick (along with the 2015 second round pick obtained from Philadelphia in the Andrew MacDonald trade) could be flipped for an impact player.

It was just last year that Snow was able to obtain Lubomir Visnovsky for a second round pick, and Snow alluded to trying to do more of the same in a conference call with reporters after the Vanek trade.

Either way, now that the trade deadline is over, Snow can focus his efforts on the draft, the offseason, and putting together a better team for the 2014-2015 season, the team’s last at Nassau Coliseum.

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