By Jeff Capellini
You could say the Islanders are in a bit of a bind.
Needing a significant upgrade to play alongside superstar center John Tavares and to advance their never-ending rebuild to the next level, the Islanders traded supremely popular and productive Matt Moulson, a first round pick in 2014 and a second round pick in 2015 to Buffalo for Thomas Vanek back on Oct. 28.
The move was met with open arms by fans who understood the team’s need to put a productive sidekick next to Tavares to take his game to the next level. That’s exactly what has happened in the 37 games Vanek has played with the Islanders. The 30-year-old winger, who will represent his native Austria in Sochi next month, has 36 points, including 14 goals, playing on the top line with Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Tavares is currently second in the NHL in scoring with 63 points and is on pace to obliterate his previous high of 81, set two seasons ago. Okposo has already equaled his previous career high for points with 52 — in 28 less games.
That’s the Vanek factor as much as it is Tavares being Tavares.
But the trade was also highly criticized, largely by a contingent of fans that adored Moulson, a three-time 30-goal scorer, and felt the Islanders took too much of a risk giving up so much for a player in Vanek who can become an unrestricted free agent after the season. They felt the Isles would have been better suited giving up significant assets for a goalie or a first-pairing defenseman while keeping Moulson.
Regardless of where you stand on the move, the Islanders have been trying to sell Vanek on Long Island since the day the deal was done, and it appears to be working, as he recently told Newsday he likes the area and the team a lot.
The problem is he has yet to tell general manager Garth Snow if he’s willing to re-sign, and the trade deadline is fast approaching.
“I know that we’re getting close [to the deadline] and that they want to know what I’m going to do. It’s a big decision that obviously isn’t just about me, it’s a big decision for my family, where we’re going to be,” Vanek told Newsday on Thursday.
He also told the newspaper he would “understand” if the Islanders traded him, which could be construed to mean he might not have an answer for the Islanders leading up to the March 5 deadline, or it could mean something else, which I will get to in a bit.
Sooner or later, Snow is going to have to make a decision, which likely will be the only decision he can make if things don’t change — trading Vanek to at least recoup what he shipped to Buffalo in the first place.
“I know Garth gave up a lot to get me here, so if they feel they need to get something back [by the deadline], I understand,” Vanek said. “He’s been great, the team has been great. No one has put any pressure on me.”
Luckily for the Islanders, Vanek’s stock has gone through the roof this season and they should be under siege from other clubs if they decide to shop him.
Despite all that, there is another angle to this situation. Vanek also told Newsday re-signing with the Islanders would remain an option in the offseason regardless if they trade him or not. And it didn’t sound obligatory or like he was just searching for the right thing to say. It sounded like a legitimate overture.
“I like it here,” Vanek said. “It’s a good group of guys. This would be a place I’d consider if it gets to July 1.”
So, in a perfect world the Islanders get a decision from Vanek soon and if he wants to stay they make their best offer, which very well could be the best offer he sees regardless if he hits free agency. Only the Islanders, as his current team, can offer Vanek an eighth year, per the new collective bargaining agreement. And it would be foolish to think Snow gave up as much as he did to get Vanek in the first place without taking into consideration what the monetary cost would be to lock him up long term.
However, if Vanek does not give Snow an answer or says he wants to test free agency, something he cannot be blamed for, he will almost certainly be traded, even if the Islanders are within striking distance of a playoff berth. Right now they are seven points out of the wild card and third place in the Metropolitan Division with 29 games to play.
SO, HOW WILL THIS REALLY PLAY OUT?
I believe this isn’t about what the Islanders are doing wrong, but about what Vanek is doing right. To his credit, he’s been straight-forward with this team since the beginning. He also is very savvy. He may indeed really like Long Island, but his own words of late could be interpreted to mean “your offer is not good enough,” which, if true, means Snow needs to stop messing around.
Since Vanek appears to be on the fence leaning toward the highway, Snow may want to try giving him a reason to stay where he is. That means he needs to cut through the small talk and the waiting and make the offer that could put all potential suitors in free agency out of business.
The flip side to that is Vanek is very much human and all the money and years in the world may not matter to his wife and children. And all signs seem to indicate that Vanek makes his decisions based on them, not himself.
Then there’s this: if this incredibly talented player tells the Islanders he won’t consider re-signing with them until the offseason, Snow needs to trade him for not just a player and two high picks to erase the Moulson deal, but more importantly a ready-made NHL player who could potentially play with Tavares and Okposo.
That’s the tough part. Vanek is the ideal fit. His play over three-dozen games should tell Islanders fans everything they need to know about his production. Sure, he’s not perfect. He has flaws. He gets a bit lazy sometimes out there. But there’s no escaping the fact that when he’s teamed with Tavares and Okposo the Islanders have arguably the best line in the NHL.
I’ll repeat that in case you missed it: the best line in hockey. How do I know? Because since Dec. 17, Vanek, Tavares and Okposo are among the top 5 scorers in the league.
The Islander fan of the last 20 years knows only turmoil. Even when Tavares was drafted there were a lot of people wondering how the hell they got so lucky. Well, they got so lucky because they were brutal for a long time. Losing Vanek will further frustrate many, but it will not be a death sentence for the franchise. The fact is this team needs to take risks to get top talent. Rolling the dice on the Vanek trade was something I would do 100 times out of 100, because the Islanders will not get to the next level relying solely on Snow’s drafting merits.
Or they may but at this rate we’ll all be dead by the time it happens.
Sooner or later an outsider is going to come in and actually stay for a while. Maybe Vanek will be that guy. Maybe he won’t. Only he knows — or will know eventually.
That’s the problem. The waiting is always the hardest part. Islanders fans know that all too well.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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