By Daniel Friedman
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Ready or not, here comes Thomas Vanek.
On Sunday evening, the New York Islanders shifted the tectonic plates of the hockey world, trading Matt Moulson, a 2014 first round pick (which can be deferred to 2015 if it’s a top-ten selection) and a 2015 second round pick to the Buffalo Sabres, in exchange for the Austrian goal-scoring dynamo.
It became fairly obvious to me, based on the vibe given off by the coaching staff of late, that a shake-up of some sort was imminent, but the last thing I expected the Islanders to do was trade for offensive help.
Most of Jack Capuano’s recent comments have been about the lackluster performance of his defensive corps. After the Isles’ optional skate on Tuesday morning, Capuano stressed that yet again:
“Collectively, back there, we have to play better. I’ve got the confidence in them that it’s gonna get better. We have to defend harder. We’ve given up goals…you have to be able to play without the puck. Some of our guys have struggled with that.”
I’m sure he’d hoped things would’ve turned out differently and that there’d be no need to repeat himself several hours later, but he ended up doing just that:
“I thought we played decent but, again, it’s the same mistakes with our defense,” said a clearly agitated Capuano. “We’re just not poised enough with the puck; I think we turned it over too many times back there.
Similar to last week’s “I’m not going to talk about the goaltending” episode, when Capuano ended up discussing Kevin Poulin anyway, he made several references to his team’s defensive miscues, but then suggested that “they’re not defensive breakdowns.”
During that same press conference, which lasted a grand total of 85 seconds, Capuano also confessed that he “fell asleep on a too many men on the ice call.”
Looking at all the evidence, one can’t help but wonder if this head coach still has a feel for the pulse in that locker room. It also begs the question: Is Jack Capuano on the hot seat?
Garth Snow traded an impending unrestricted free agent for another player in the same contractual predicament. The only difference is, as of right now, he would’ve had a better chance of re-signing Moulson than he does of retaining Vanek.
Moulson very much wanted to be a part of this team, he loved everything about being an Islander, he enjoyed living on Long Island and was a locker room favorite.
“It was pretty shocking,” said Kyle Okposo. “You lose a friend but, at the same time, you gain a good guy in Thomas (Vanek). I didn’t see it coming at all. Nobody did, I don’t think. (Garth Snow) shook things up and we’re excited for the challenge.”
The odds of re-signing him would’ve been much higher than a lot of people seem to think and, just listening to his comments after the trade, he certainly didn’t sound like a player who had one foot out the door, so to speak.
On Monday morning, Snow admitted that trading Moulson wasn’t an easy thing to do: “Obviously, you’re very disappointed when you lose someone like Matt, not only as a player but as a person. In that respect, it’s always tough to see a player like Matt go out the door, but you have to give up something to get something.”
What’s done is done and, ultimately, the Islanders end up with Thomas Vanek. From a pure hockey standpoint and an immediate-impact perspective, they are a better hockey team now than they were before the trade. As legendary Montreal Canadiens’ GM Sam Pollock once said, “whichever team gets the best player wins the trade.”
Not that it’s definitely true in this particular case, because there are several factors that could either make this a great trade or a big mistake.
It is worth noting that this is not your typical “player rental” situation. Assuming Vanek stays healthy, he’ll play 71 games with this team, meaning the Islanders will essentially get a full season out of him and have five months to show him that he’s better off on Long Island and in Brooklyn than he would be in Minnesota.
With that on the table, if Vanek re-signs, the Islanders win the trade. He’s a great player and, now that he’s here, I think he’s going to be an excellent fit within the dynamic of this team. Having said that, even if the Isles are slightly better on offense than they previously were, their defense is still atrocious and nothing has been done to address that.
“The disappointing thing for me is, the things that we go over and the things that we talk about, they make the same mistake again,” said Capuano. “Our defensemen have to play better; that’s the bottom line. We need to win more wall battles but our defense has to find a way to play better.”
Defensively, the Isles aren’t as bad as their current play suggests, but even at their best, even with a healthy Lubomir Visnovsky and Brian Strait in the lineup, they’re still not good enough for a team that aspires to be the “real deal.”
In order for this experiment to work, this cannot be the only trade Snow makes. You can’t roll with this lineup — as it’s currently constructed — every night and expect to be anything more than a bubble team that could sneak into the seventh or eighth seed.
If you want to be the kind of team that Thomas Vanek will want to continue playing for, then you need to plug up the holes. That means trading for a top-four shutdown defenseman; someone in the mold of a Kevin Bieksa or Stephane Robidas.
As bad as the defense has been, it is one player away from being an effective unit (at full-strength). Reeling in a defensive anchor will allow everyone else to move down one slot and into more suitable roles.
Travis Hamonic, who’s not quite ready to be “the guy,” can be a defensive stalwart without having to shoulder most of the load at age-23. Andrew MacDonald can be the second-pairing defenseman he’s cut out to be and Brian Strait, who’s reliable when healthy, can be a fifth or sixth rearguard.
Youngster Matt Donovan can learn the ropes without being counted upon to take on more responsibility than he’s currently prepared for, while Thomas Hickey, Matt Carkner and Radek Martinek can rotate in and out of the lineup wherever and whenever the coaches see fit.
It really is that simple, as shocking as that may sound.
Once the Islanders sort out their defensive issues, everything else will take care of itself. Barclays Center is a gorgeous arena and Vanek won’t have any trouble seeing that. I have no doubt that Isles’ brass will give him a grand tour of the team’s future home.
John Tavares will do his part too; riding shotgun with someone who’s arguably the third-best forward on the planet right now is an easy sell. “Obviously, you can tell he’s great around the net and he’s strong on the puck,” said Tavares. “I don’t think it’s gonna take too long to get used to playing with a guy like him that can make plays.”
On Monday, Vanek couldn’t contain his own excitement about playing alongside Tavares:
“An opportunity like this doesn’t come around much,” Vanek said. “I’m gonna try and make the most of it.”
Prior to his Islander debut Tuesday night, Vanek explained that chemistry does not develop instantaneously. In that contest, he and his line-mates (Tavares, Kyle Okposo) showed glimpses of being a lethal scoring trio, which is something the Islanders are expecting from them.
At other times, however, they very much resembled a work in progress. Vanek alluded to that in his post-game comments:
“We had some good moments. Johnny (Tavares) is so creative with the puck, but I need to watch some video and see his tendencies, and the same with Kyle (Okposo). You learn every shift. There were a few plays we lost the puck, where we thought we could’ve had a quick chance but we’ll get better.”
Fellow countryman Michael Grabner — who said that Vanek called him within minutes of the trade — will help him get acclimated and feel welcome, as will Minnesota-pal Kyle Okposo:
“We’re both Gopher alums,” said Okposo. “He spends his summers in Minnesota, so I see quite a bit of him in the summer. He’s a really good guy. First and foremost, he’s gonna really fit in with our team. He brings that goal-scoring ability. He’s an elite player, he’s got a really good mind for the game. We’re excited to have him on our club.”
The New York Islanders have to convince Vanek that they’re a team on the rise, that they’re committed to winning and that they’re constantly improving to reach that goal.
It has to be a top priority because, if it isn’t, not only will Vanek walk at the end of the year; the team he leaves behind might finish the season on the outside looking in.
On Monday, Garth Snow insisted that his Isles “haven’t been good enough” and that “our expectations are to be higher in the standings than we are.” That’s a good thing; it’s a sign that the organization wants to be a real player.
Snow needs to continue wheeling and dealing for that to happen. You want to be a “win now” hockey team? Get out there and prove it.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanWFAN.
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