By Jeff Capellini
As much as the Islanders’ fan base loves Matt Moulson, and all that he represented admirably for four-plus seasons on the Island, there are a few truths that cannot be glossed over or de-emphasized.
First, Thomas Vanek is a world-class player. Moulson is not.
Second, the Islanders needed to put behind them the reality of what they were and embrace what they must become to take the next step in their development.
The trade that sent Moulson to Buffalo for Vanek on Sunday night was the type of game-changing decision that this fan base had demanded for a very long time, only to be repeatedly told no. And I believe when the fans get over the fact that a player they had nothing but love and respect for is gone and a player who has flat-out stellar first-line sniper ability is accepted, they’ll be happier and see the bigger picture.
The Islanders paid a big price to land 29-year-old Vanek, an impending unrestricted free agent, shipping a proven 30-goal scorer, a first-round pick in 2014 and a second rounder in 2015 to Buffalo. However, Moulson, also 29 and set to test the free agency waters after this season, did not fit into this team’s long-term plans. The NHL is a speed game now and though Moulson is by no means a jalopy out there on the ice, his attributes at this point in his career are better served on the power play and lower lines, not on the top line at even strength, where the Isles give an illusion of being good, but really have a lot of work to do.
Coming into this season, which has not gotten off to a great start considering the Isles are NHL .500 at 4-4-3, general manager Garth Snow had not addressed the three glaring weaknesses this team had as it was bounced from the first round of last season’s playoffs by Pittsburgh:
The Isles needed to find a true sniper to play with John Tavares.
The Isles needed to address goaltending.
The Isles needed to find a stay-at-home defenseman they could trust.
Because he simply chose not to deal youthful assets, Snow really did none of the three beyond going through the motions. I was concerned about each throughout the offseason and through 11 games, regardless if that’s a small sample size or not, it was clearly obvious that those aspects would remain a problem until they were addressed.
In that short time the Isles tried several players on Tavares’ wing and the search was compounded by the fact that Moulson, considered the immovable object on JT’s side, struggled at even strength, managing just a goal and an assist. This while Tavares was in the midst of a 10-game point-scoring streak. It’s no secret that Moulson is who he is in large part due to Tavares. But when he was only scoring consistently on the power play (5 goals, 2 assists), it was a bad sign.
Coach Jack Capuano knew it, too. He bounced Moulson from line to line. People weren’t used to seeing No. 26 on the third line, but he was there for a very real reason.
Moulson also was likely going to look for a hefty payday in the offseason, one that would have challenged Tavares’ yearly income. The Islanders were never going to give a largely one-dimensional offensive player that kind of coin and are likely still a ways from extending their newly minted captain again. They didn’t cave to P.A. Parenteau and the odds are they wouldn’t have gone long-term, big money with Moulson.
Maybe a shorter-term deal at the same price defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky got ($9 million over two years) was doable, but no one would have blamed Moulson for wanting more security and the dollars that go along with it, considering his overall production with the Islanders and the fact that his chances for striking it rich on the market are running out due to his age.
Enter Vanek, who is in the final season of a deal that pays him a little more than $7.1 million annually. This is a player who has scored 40 goals twice, at least 20 goals eight times, and surpassed 80 points once playing alongside centers you’d really have to think long and hard to name for an organization in the Sabres that is not known for being an offensive juggernaut.
Vanek can create his own offense, something Moulson doesn’t do with regularity, if at all, and is every bit the player Moulson is on the power play, registering double-digit extra-man goals seven times, including an insane 20 in 2008.
He’s a true top line sniper in every sense of the term.
Now, a lot of people are worried the Isles won’t be able to re-sign Vanek, thus making the high price they paid for him look astronomically foolish. They are also worried about the picks and the fact that the Isles did not address goalie or defense first, two areas of need they deem more glaring than offense.
Well, let me address all of those concerns.
The Islanders currently have the No. 2 power-play unit in the NHL (27.8 percent), but anyone who knows anything about this game will tell you if a team relies too much on its special teams it is doomed. Even-strength play is still what decides games offensively. Vanek is a much better 5-on-5 player than Moulson. His hands rival Moulson’s and he’s 6-foot-2, 220 pounds and pretty hard to knock off the puck. Give him time with Tavares and they’ll take some of the pressure off a power play that will eventually come back to Earth anyway. In addition, ever see Vanek finish on an odd-man rush? It’s justice.
I don’t think Snow makes this trade unless he knows he can re-sign Vanek. This is not Ryan Smyth all over again. The Isles made a very fair offer to Smyth and, assuming JT’s new weapon does his thing, will do the same for Vanek. Throw in the prospects of playing in a new arena in Brooklyn and the fact that the Isles, on paper at least, are a lot better than they’ve been in literally decades, they should have a very good shot of extending him for years.
As far as the draft picks go, I don’t know about you, but I’m fed up with draft picks. The Islanders have had so many since 2008 are you really going to miss two more? The first rounder this season likely will be outside the top 15, provided the Isles at a minimum qualify for the eighth spot in the East. This franchise has proven that it takes its sweet time cultivating talent regardless of where and when it is selected. My guess, the Isles’ 2014 first rounder would hit the NHL in two years at a minimum. If you are looking for examples, see Calvin de Haan, Ryan Strome and Griffin Reinhart, who were drafted in the first round in 2009, ’11 and ’12, respectively, and are still not here.
The odds of a second rounder mattering at this point more than for organizational depth are long.
As for the goaltending and defense issues, it’s still early enough to let them play out. But if they fail, the Vanek trade signifies that the Islanders are no longer a franchise that sits still or treads water due to finances. Snow has been stockpiling talent for five years. If you believe he won’t use that talent to get an upgrade for Evgeni Nabokov or get some help on the blue line, you are not paying attention. What went down Sunday night represented a further organizational shift in thinking, an extension of the offseason contracts doled out to Travis Hamonic and Josh Bailey, and the trade and subsequent contract for Cal Clutterbuck.
The Islanders are ready to make the moves necessary to surpass what they created last season.
The fan base should be doing backflips right now over this revelation. It’s as if Snow realizes he had a typical offseason, but needed to let the blueprint play out for a little longer before getting ultra-aggressive.
The Isles simply don’t trade for Vanek to address scoring, arguably No. 3 on their list of concerns, unless they are ready to do whatever is necessary to also correct potential problems in net or on defense. That or Snow understands full well that top flight goalies and defensemen don’t grow on trees, and the Islanders may need to outscore opponents more this season than they were originally constructed to do.
Either way, the Islanders are being proactive. They are not waiting around and hoping for this or that to improve.
With this trade, Snow has sent a message to every player on the team short of Tavares: If you don’t produce, you are out of here.
My guess is the Islanders will get the hint. If they don’t, they’ll be replaced by those who do.
Amen. It’s about time.
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