As reported by Chad Graff this afternoon, Thomas Vanek was bought out today by the Wild.
Thomas Vanek bought out by the #MNWild. Saves the team $5 million in cap space with free agency beginning in one week.— Chad Graff (@ChadGraff) June 24, 2016
The move, as noted by Graff, clears $5 million for the Wild this coming season. The following season (when Vanek would have been off the books) the Wild continue to owe $2.5 million towards the cap hit as a penalty for the move.
With a number of Free Agents, both restricted and non, Chuck Fletcher felt he needed the extra flexibility in order to fit Chris Porter, Ryan Carter, and Jarrett Stoll under the cap (conjecture on my part).
Vanek’s time with the Wild was divisive. The winger was brought in to be a scorer, yet seemed to be more of a playmaker. His apparent lack of effort on th defensive side of the puck enraged fans, who criticized the Austrian’s work ethic. According to some, Vanek never earned his $6.5 million paycheck.
This criticism is, in this writer’s opinion, asinine at best. Vanek did go through a scoring drought early in his career with the Wild; adjusting to the Western Conference and the Central Division was difficult for the former Canadien.
Despite his early struggle, Vanek scored 13 goals and 15 primary assists in his first year with the Wild, for a total 1.86 points-per-60 at 5v5. This was good enough to be the third best forward on the team. His second season, Vanek declined slightly (as did the Wild) to 1.58 points-per-60, with 10 goals and 12 assists. This put him fourth on the team.
When you combine these totals, Vanek scored 1.73 points-per-60 in his two years with the Wild, putting him sixth on the squad. That is deceiving, though; two of the forwards above him are the now-bought-out Matt Cooke and Chris "only played 266 minutes" Stewart. Of forwards with significant time on the ice, Vanek was fourth, below Justin Fontaine, Zach Parise, and Nino Niederreiter.
In case you aren’t a fan of "rate" stats, which account for varying ice times– Vanek was fourth in his two seasons in goals and second in assists.
Did Vanek underperform his contract? That depends on what you expect from a $6.5m winger. Regardless of your expectations, Vanek was in the top four-producing forwards on the squad during his time; criticism of his offensive ability is a waste of time.
The problem wasn’t defensive either; over his two season in Minnesota, Vanek was the seventh-best forward in terms of goals-for%. He was beat out by Nino Niederreiter, Charlie Coyle, Zach Parise, Mikael Granlund, Mikko Koivu, and Jason Pominville.
In short: Vanek was one of the Wild’s best forwards, even taking his scoring drought and "questionable" defensive play into account.
Why the Buyout
If Vanek was such a good player, why was he bought out? It’s a good question. The Wild are up against the cap more than most teams; they only have $14m to play with after this buyout. There were two serious candidates to buy out or trade: Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville. Pominville’s buyout would have been much more costly, running six extra seasons and hamstringing the Wild for that time. Nor could Pommer be traded; his contract included a no-trade clause, and the hope of him being willing to leave for somewhere else was a long shot at best. Even if he was willing to move, what would the Wild have gotten back for a forward coming off perhaps his worst season of his career? The Wild were stuck with Pominville.
Equally at play is the Wild’s lack of center depth; the Wild are already struggling to find a spine for their forward lines, and moving one of their two or three centers would have cut the legs out from under the team.
Jason Zucker, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, and Erik Haula are supposed to be a part of the Wild’s future; trading or letting them go into free agency was not an option for the General Manager.
In short: Chuck Fletcher’s hand was forced by his own mismanagement of the team. His willingness to lock players into long contracts with no-move or no-trade clauses has come full circle, and GMCF has been forced to buy out a three-year contract after two years. This is an embarrassment in and of itself; part of a GM’s job is to plan ahead, and if you can’t plan more than two years into the future, you have problems. Worse, the player being bought out is one of the top four or five forwards on the team.
This move makes the Wild demonstrably worse and less dangerous, particularly given the coaching change the Wild have made. Bruce Boudreau is used to scoring wingers with a penchant for defensive laziness; he had the best in the game while in Washington with Alex Ovechkin. Vanek’s already stellar numbers would only have improved under Boudreau’s tutelage.
This extra cap space will likely be used by Chuck Fletcher to re-sign the pending free agents, and there are quite a few. David Jones, Justin Fontaine, Jarret Stoll, Ryan Carter, and Chris Porter are all unrestricted free agents, while Jason Zucker, Zac Dalpe, Jordan Schroeder, Matt Dumba, and Darcy Kuemper are all restricted free agents. $14m will likely not be enough to sign all these players, and remember the Wild lose another million in cap space next year due to the buyout’s clause.
Chuck Fletcher’s mismanagement of the roster and cap has forced the Wild to buy out one of their best players in order to re-sign either free agents that have not yet developed into quality players, or to re-sign aging depth players who play for near the league minimum.
Boudreau is a big get, and Chuck Fletcher’s job is not at all in danger, but this situation is a mess, and one that should thoroughly embarrass the Wild GM.