Whether it was actually the worst-kept secret in hockey, or just speculation by people assuming that what happened with Ryan Suter and Zach Parise was bound to happen again, star Left-Winger Thomas Vanek has been thought to be headed to Minnesota for a year.
Fans have been waiting and searching for any indication that the former Golden Gopher would maybe sign with the Wild. When he was traded to the Islanders, people speculated it would only be the short-term. As the Isles tanked, they thought maybe the Wild would trade for him at the deadline. When Montreal acquired him, people were assumed Vanek would only be a rental, keeping up their hope he'd sign with the Wild eventually. It was destiny.
In the last month, though? It's been a dramatic turnaround in public opinion. Some of it has nothing to do with Vanek. Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula, and Charlie Coyle each had fine playoff performances, and are approaching restricted Free Agency, meaning they will earn a bump in salary. A lot of people want to abstain from expensive upgrades to the team to fit them under the salary cap.
But Vanek has done himself no favors. During the playoffs, he's ranked only 33rd in playoff scoring with 9 points over 15 games. Unlike his similarly struggling teammate, Max Pacioretty, who has 50 shots in that time (5th in the playoffs), Vanek has disappeared in the shooting category. His 25 shots are tied for 59th in the playoffs, behind noted Wild snipers in Mikael Granlund and Mikko Koivu.
He's only mustered one point in the Eastern Conference Finals so far, and his ice time has dipped dramatically. He only plays about 11-13 minutes a game now, and it's clear that Michel Therrien isn't pleased with Vanek's game. In fairness, to Therrien, no one is.
And this is by no means local to Minnesota.
Vanek in the first: 4:17 TOI, no shot attempts. #PayTheMan— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) May 26, 2014
I've seen a rumor that he has a broken bone in his hand, and that would certainly explain the lackluster performance. Until we see that confirmed, and perhaps even after that point, this stretch is going to frighten off people and fanbases who could use Vanek's offense, but think he's either declining, lacking work ethic, or both.
This all ignores the fact that there was, and still is, a pretty compelling reason to sign Thomas Vanek.
And that is, namely, that if the Wild don't want to give up assets in a trade, Thomas Vanek represents the best chance at upgrading the offense on a team that should be looking to win the Stanley Cup in the next 2-4 years.
He has yet to score at the same level as his sophomore season, where he racked up 43 goals and 84 points, but Vanek has been a pretty consistent 60-70 point scorer in the league with a penchant for racking up shots, and scoring goals. His shooting percentage was 10.9 this season. This was well above the Minnesota Wild's average. This was the lowest shooting percentage in the guy's career- 12.7 was his previous low (11-12). And it was also on 248 shots, which would have led the Wild this season.
Take in the rumors that he loves to play with Wild forward Jason Pominville- who has been believed to have been acquired/extended in order to further lure in the former Golden Gopher- and you have a player with skill, a tendency to shoot and score goals, and built-in chemistry with one of your forwards. And he's able to do a lot of damage on the power play, something few Wild forwards can say right now.
Yes, the Wild were burned by Dany Heatley, so it's understandable that the fanbase may be running for the hills when it comes to Vanek upon seeing his age and his bad playoff.
But the Wild don't have anyone who can replicate Vanek at his best- he's an offensive creator that can generate easy goals. You can't guarantee that Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, or Erik Haula will ever match his offensive production. And they're probably long-shots to do so. Vanek may not be able to give you that over 5, 6, or 7 years, but he could probably do it for 3. Certainly 2. That might be the Wild's best opportunity to hoist the Cup, not 5 years from now.
As for his age, the Wild have players that are going to carry that same risk. Ryan Suter and Zach Parise have until the sun goes out with this team, and they're both going to turn 30 this year. 31-year-old Jason Pominville starts a 5-year extension next season. Mikko Koivu's 31, and he's got 4 years remaining on his deal. What's the difference with Vanek?
Make no mistake: It would be my preference to acquire a younger player to boost offense in a trade, but that gets tricky there. Signing Vanek only costs money, and the Wild can absolutely do that if they'd like. Also note that I think anything approaching the 7-year, 50-million dollar deal he turned down from the Islanders is way too much. Like the Pominville extension, I'd be happiest with a 4-year term, but would understand they may have to add a 5th year.
Even though pursuing the trade market may yield younger, more appealing options for the Wild, the backlash against Thomas Vanek has gone way too far. I don't see any reason why he couldn't be a productive player for this, or any team, the next 3 seasons.