How the New York Islanders should proceed with Thomas Vanek

Garth Snow’s worst fears were realized Monday afternoon, when the Islanders GM learned that star forward Thomas Vanek would not sign an extension to stay on Long Island. And thus that doomsday scenario of trading Matt Moulson for Vanek, only to enter next season with neither of them, appears just around the corner.

There’s still a chance that Vanek ends up with the Islanders next season even after reportedly turning down the team’s seven-year, $50 million contract offer earlier today. The Austrian superstar has said he’ll consider the Isles in free agency – no matter what happens before the March 5 trade deadline – and may discover that theirs is the best deal on the table. In all likelihood though, Vanek’s Islander career will come to a close shortly after the Olympics.

Thomas Vanek’s run on Long Island is likely over — for now, at least.

That has to sting for the Isles, in the same way it hurts to wake up from a perfect dream. Vanek, they had come to think, was a true Islander, the shiny Maserati in the mind’s eye. And just as they were beginning to believe, reality has jarred this beleaguered organization awake. Unfortunately, it’s time to turn in the keys.

The silver lining for the Islanders is that Vanek, unlike any subliminal creation, is real – and he’s still theirs. The Maserati they saw in their dreams is parked in the garage downstairs, and the team can do with it what they wish. With the lease soon expiring, management would be wise to trade it in while they still can.

For Garth Snow and Co. that may mean swallowing their pride and admitting a loss. They can hold on to Vanek through the rest of the season, if they wish, in the hope that he re-ups with the team this summer. But that’s a long-shot scenario at best, and thus the focus must now turn toward minimizing the damage. From here on out, this is about salvaging a failed investment.

The Islanders can cut their losses by putting Vanek on the block and selling high. The gifted winger has posted big-time numbers over the course of three months on Long Island – 38 points in 41 games – and will be the most coveted asset at the trade deadline if the Islanders make him available. Remember, Snow gave up Moulson and two premium draft picks (2014, 1st round; 2015, 2nd round) to pry him away from the Sabres’ back in October, and his value, if anything, is higher now.

The Isles, at the very least, can get back what they gave up. Before anything else, they should focus on replenishing their draft options, for the team won’t receive any compensation picks if Vanek does sign elsewhere given his status as an unrestricted free agent. (The lack of insurance the Islanders sought when they made this trade in October is, truly, baffling.) The team’s best players right now, excluding Vanek, all arrived in Long Island via the draft – that is to say, not by choice – so the primary objective in moving Vanek has to be stockpiling picks.

That doesn’t mean the Islanders shouldn’t think short-term as well. Vanek’s stock is high enough right now to net a couple draft picks and an established NHL player, so management has the opportunity here to kill two birds with one (really big) stone.

The Islanders’ most glaring need right now is between the pipes, where neither Evgeni Nabokov nor Kevin Poulin has been up to snuff all season long. With Nabokov unlikely to resign with the team this summer and Poulin clearly not ready for the starting job, GM Snow should look at Vanek as the team’s untapped solution in net.

The Toronto Maple Leafs would be a good team to call. Jonathan Bernier has clearly emerged as the number one goalie in Toronto, thus rendering James Reimer the undeserving – and overqualified – backup. The same goes for Brian Elliot in St. Louis and Niklas Backstrom in Minnesota, though Backstrom has struggled through an injury-riddled season.

What Toronto, St. Louis and Minnesota all have in common is firm standing in the playoff picture and thus perceived interest in a player like Vanek. Both Elliot and Reimer are playing out the final year of their respective contracts and might seem like risky propositions, but the opportunity to be a full-time starter on Long Island would be serious motivation to resign there this summer.

Could the Islanders target Toronto’s James Reimer in a trade involving Thomas Vanek?

(Quick aside: Vanek, as noted above, has said he’ll consider the Islanders this summer regardless of what happens in the next month, suggesting he has some genuine interest in staying on Long Island. Maybe, then, in turning down that extension, Vanek is inviting the Islanders to trade him so that they may “fix themselves” ahead of free agency. When July 1 rolls around and the Islanders suddenly have a top-flight goalie and a bolstered blueline, Vanek does a 360 and accepts Snow’s original offer. An unlikely scenario, yes, but one worth keeping an eye on.)

So while the Islanders are cutting their losses now, likely with their tail between their legs, there’s a chance they break even when this tangled chain of events reaches a resolution.

Assuming they move Vanek, they will recover the draft picks they lost in the original trade and likely an NHL-ready goaltender as well, which is probably what they should have taken care of in the first place. If Vanek then signs elsewhere this summer, the trade the Islanders have made, in essence, is Moulson for a high-caliber goalie. And the Islanders, by virtue of their desperate need for an upgrade in net, are winners in that deal. It makes them better.

Oh, and don’t rule out Vanek turning around and signing with the Islanders this summer. His rejecting their offer today may be the foundation of success tomorrow.