How Will We Remember Thomas Vanek?

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The Thomas Vanek-New York Islanders relationship reached its boiling point today, and Vanek was dealt to the Montreal Canadiens for a 2014 conditional second-round draft pick and prospect Sebastian Collberg. The massive price the Isles had paid to get Vanek did not get recouped, and the suggestion that it is a fait accompli that he will head to Minnesota when he hits free agency this summer certainly did not drive up his value.

“Rentals” are expensive, and “hockey trades” are the preferred currency of NHL general managers presently. It is great if you can add a rental to help streamline your forward depth or back end, but this cap luxury is difficult to come by. Most franchises do not have assets to trade because they have already dealt draft picks or prospects, or are hoarding them. And that is smart; you want a cupboard stocked with players who will develop and hone their skills under your team’s auspices. Teams do not want to end up like the New Jersey Devils.

But, two or three years from now, how will we think of Vanek at this trade deadline? Vanek was one of the top trade targets. Yesterday augured an active market, and that has stayed true today.

Vanek has looked inconsistent this season, and his effort has been especially spotty of late, but his signature scoring touch shows up — the winger has 21 goals and 32 assists. Those are pretty impressive boxcar stats, and while he is not the devastating offensive force he once was, goal scorers are a prized commodity. The Islanders are not very good, and the Vanek-John Tavares-Kyle Okposo line at its best was dominant. That line was three dynamic players who are blessed with very good puck skills and impressive strength. If you surround Vanek with other talented players who can feed him the puck, the goals will come.

But there was an undercurrent around the league that Vanek was not worth the trouble. The company line was that people liked him, but not for the appraised price. (Frank Provenzano assessed him as obtainable for a first-round pick and a B prospect with a roster player moving as well.) Obviously, Montreal got him for much less.

Vanek is a former top-five pick who scored 43, 36, and 40 in his best years. Since 2009, his last 40-goal season, his highest goal total has been 32, a 20 percent decline. After that 32-goal season in 2011 – he scored 28 goals in 2010 – he has seen his goal total drop to 26 and 20, and this season he is projected to finish with 27. This is a player who will command a cap hit of $7 million or higher in free agency.

If Vanek’s marketability was weak, it was not just because he had made it clear he plans to test free agency, but also because he is 30. At an older age, it is more difficult to generate scoring chances when you are less explosive than you were in your youth. And Vanek is less explosive; he is not turning the corner for an outside-inside move like he could in his prime. He knows his role, which is to score goals. The Islanders made the mistake of paying a huge premium for a player who is clearly in decline from an all-dimensional impact standpoint, and the goals that are his calling card come less frequently. When you look at his ability to spur possession and territorial advantage, the metrics are troubling.

Examining Vanek’s skills for tilting the ice in five-on-five, close-scoring situations helps render a clearer picture of what he is all about. You see a flawed player with a strong offensive game. And Vanek’s doppleganger among Islanders’ forwards in this category is a bit stunning: right winger Colin McDonald. They have virtually identical Corsi numbers, with McDonald’s Fenwick numbers slightly better. Vanek also gets the juiciest zone starts of any player on the Islanders, albeit against stiff competition.

But the statistics also meet the eye test, and hint at a larger point. Vanek is a one-dimensional winger who was always equipped with speed, puck-handling acumen, and a booming shot. But as those skills have decreased as he has gotten older, it has become harder for him to produce at a prolific level. While Vanek is still very dangerous, especially on the power play with more space to shoot, he struggles to find space on his own. He has been generating approximately three shots per game, but a lot of that was a byproduct of Tavares and Okposo doing the legwork. Like Marian Gaborik, Vanek has transformed into a glorified gunner. Vanek could fare better in his 30s than Gaborik and Dany Heatley, but it seems very plausible things could go completely sideways.

So much emphasis is put on the two-way game these days that goal scoring almost seems underrated. Alexander Ovechkin gets chastised for being antithetical to advanced statistics – on a shift-to-shift basis he does not drive play. And the romanticism for guys like Bobby Hull, who used to skate north and fire rockets from 50-feet out, seems antiquated. While, ultimately, a guy who scores a ton of goals and hits a lot is an enormously valuable player, the game has changed. Positions are increasingly amorphous.

Even with Vanek’s shortcomings in the neutral and defensive zones, goal scoring is probably the best skill you can have as a player. If you can put the puck in the net, you are an asset. But at this point in his career, Vanek is closer to an auxiliary frill than an integral cog. The postseason demands tight checking and brutal physicality, and Vanek does not play with contact particularly well. He may add a few goals, but his game is much more vocational now. He can score goals, but do not expect a lot else.

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