When the New York Islanders traded for Thomas Vanek in October, the deal reeked of risk. They had given up an established 30-goal guy in Matt Moulson and two high draft picks (2014 1st round, 2015 2nd round), all with little insurance. Vanek is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and he came to Long Island without any clear plans to stay.
Moulson, on the other hand, had the feel of an Islander lifer. Though he spent his first two NHL seasons with the Kings, he built his career with the Isles, evolving into a bona fide goal-scorer – and fan-favorite – since joining the team in 2009. He, too, will enter free agency this summer, but he seemed to be an easy player to maintain for the Islanders, a guy for whom they wouldn’t have to roll out the red carpet. (Or the green paper.)
But they’ll have to win over Vanek. It wasn’t his choice to come to Long Island, so Garth Snow and Co. have some convincing to do if they want him back next season. The team, meanwhile, simply needs to keep winning – the Islanders can court the Austrian superstar with pomp and splendor, but it’s all for nothing if they’re losing games. Vanek, like any hockey player, wants to win the Stanley Cup, and you can bet he’ll head elsewhere if he doesn’t think the Isles have a chance.
And thus in trading Moulson for Vanek, the Islanders absorbed the very real risk of entering next season with neither of them.
So that’s the giant cloud above all this. Still, the Islanders are winners in this trade two-and-a-half months later.
In Moulson, they lost a rugged goal-scorer. In Vanek, they gained a genuine superstar. That makes two of them for the Islanders, who also boast the NHL’s best player under the age of 25 in John Tavares (a case to be made here for Steven Stamkos, as well.) Vanek and Tavares have teamed up with Kyle Okposo to form one of the most dangerous first lines in the league. That’s a point of pride for the Islanders, who have long struggled to attract – and retain – high-end talent. (You’d have to go back over 20 years to name the last time the Islanders boasted a Tavares/Vanek type star. They had one in Pat LaFontaine, but he was traded in 1991, ironically, to the Sabres.)
The Islanders didn’t make this trade to sell more jerseys, though. They made it to push themselves into legitimate Cup contention. They’re still far from that goal, but not by any fault of Vanek. He struggled briefly after the trade, scoring just one goal and three points in his first six games with the Islanders, but he’s turned it on since. In 31 games with his new team, the gifted winger has 11 goals and 30 points; 17 of those have come in the past 12 games. And it’s no surprise that Vanek’s torrid stretch has coincided with the Islanders’ best run of play this season.
It’s also worth noting that Vanek is a plus-13 with the Islanders, far and away the team leader in this department. Plus/minus might be a misleading stat, but when you rank where Vanek does there’s clearly a story to be told. Does it say much if a player is plus-3 on a winning team? No, not really, but if he’s plus-13 on a team with a negative goal differential, he has to be doing something right. (Fun stat of the day: Vanek was a plus-47 (!!!) in the 2006-07 season, the second highest plus-minus total in the past 10 years.) It also speaks to the dominance of that first line, as Vanek, Tavares and Okposo are three of only four Islander forwards not in the red.
Moulson, by contrast, isn’t enjoying the same success since joining the Sabres. He scored two goals in his Buffalo debut – thus heightening the what-have-we-done fears on Long Island – but has cooled off since, and his 18 points through 31 games are 12 the lesser than Vanek’s. It hasn’t helped, of course, that he’s playing for a team in tank-mode, but the simple conclusion is that Vanek has been the better player of the two. Score “one” for the Islanders.
(That’s not to deem Buffalo the “loser” in this deal – in acquiring Moulson and two draft picks, they furthered their rebuild and stocked the cupboards for the future. And Moulson probably projects as a better long-term investment, anyway. Given his rugged style of play and penchant for dirty goals, it’s easy to see him producing the way he is now even when he loses a step. It’s hard to say the same about Vanek, a guy who relies on breakneck speed and 1 v. 1 ability)
So today, two-and-a-half months removed from the trade, the Islanders are winners. But this a fluid situation – there’s an asterisk next to that “W.” For the most important step – locking up Vanek long term – has yet to be taken.
Vanek has said he’s enjoyed his time so far with the Islanders. But that’s about as far as he’ll go in committing himself long term. Even as reports surface of the two sides negotiating an extension, Vanek has kept mum on his future, stressing a one-step-at-a-time approach. Right now, he says, he’s focused only on the next game in front of him, as the Islanders look to get back in the race. (They’re well on their way.)
So Garth Snow better hope this team keeps winning. If Vanek believes in what the Isles are growing on Long Island, there’s a strong chance he signs a long-term extension. He has a family to think about – a wife and three boys – and has said they’ve all taken well to living in New York. If the Islanders can prove themselves worthy, Vanek is likely all theirs.
What a catch it would be. At 29 years old – one year younger than Moulson – Vanek is thick in the prime of his career, and the type of player you build around. He and Tavares – another franchise tentpole – could do mighty big things together if given the chance.
The Islanders have seen the early returns in this risky investment. Now, you like to think they’d be rewarded for taking a chance.