By Craig Schroepfer
With the Stanley Cup Final over, the NHL offseason is officially underway. All 30 NHL teams will use this time to tweak or remake their rosters as they get ready for the 2014-2015 NHL season.
One name that will be mentioned frequently over the next few weeks is LW Thomas Vanek. After spending last year playing for Buffalo, NY Islanders, and Montreal, Vanek will be hitting the market as a free agent for the first time in his career.
Throughout all last season Vanek has been linked to joining the Minnesota Wild. He is considered a top six forward and played his college hockey at the University of Minnesota. Plus his wife is from Stillwater, MN. With an estimated $22 million in cap space it seems like Vanek would be a natural fit with the Wild.
This might end up being a mistake.
Vanek is a talented NHL player. His days as an elite NHL forward may be coming to an end though. Vanek has only reached the 40 goal mark twice in his career, the last being in 2008-09. The last time he scored 30 goals was in 2010-11.
In the Stanley Cup playoffs Vanek has never made a big impact. His best post-season was in 2011 when he scored 5 goals in seven games for Buffalo. This past spring Vanek was acquired at the trade deadline by Montreal hoping he would be that player that made the Canadiens a contender in the Eastern Conference.
Montreal made a Stanley Cup run not because of Vanek but in spite of him. Vanek only scored 5 goals in 17 games and spent most of his time on the Canadiens fourth line. For a player making $6.4 million more was expected out of him.
Vanek’s plight sounds like of another top six forward whose goal scoring started to go down once he turned 30 years old, Dany Heatley.
From 2005-2010 Heatley found himself around the 40 goal mark before starting to regress. The last four years Heatley has gone from 26 goals to 24 to 11 to 12 goals. Looking at Vanek’s stats they are starting to trend in the same direction.
Heatley’s imminent departure opens up a spot in the top six for Wild forwards. Instead of signing Vanek, Minnesota should consider giving one of their young players a shot at that spot.
Nino Neiderreiter was a 30 goal scorer in juniors with the Portland Winterhawks. Neiderreiter scored 14 goals in his first season in Minnesota. At 21 years old his career is just starting to take off. Forwards Erik Haula and Justin Fontaine had success at times when they played on the second line for the Wild. The wild card in all this might be Jason Zucker who has all the ability to be a natural goal scorer. Having battled through injuries last year Zucker should be motivated to prove that there is a spot for him on the roster.
The other reason the Wild should reconsider pursuing Vanek in free agency is the number of restricted free agents they have to re-sign. Neiderreiter, Fontaine, Zucker and goaltender Darcy Kuemper are all up this summer. Next summer Minnesota has to take care of Haula, Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund, Marco Scandella, Jonas Brodin, and Christian Folin. That’s a lot of players you have to keep in mind when trying to decide how best to spend $22 million in cap space.
If Minnesota is going to spend money in free agency it would be better off going after a defenseman like Dan Boyle or Willie Mitchell to bridge the gap on defense allowing Folin or Matthew Dumba to develop into NHL caliber players. If the Wild don’t want to wait for Folin or Dumba to develop they could always go after Matt Niskanen from Pittsburgh to add depth to the blueline.
On July 1, some NHL team is going to make an attractive offer to Thomas Vanek and overpay for his services. Wherever Vanek signs he will probably give that team a good year or two before that contract becomes an albatross.
If GM Chuck Fletcher decides to pursue Thomas Vanek in free agency the phrase ‘Caveat Emptor’ should be in the back of his mind.
Let the buyer beware.