(This post was written before last night’s game against Arizona. Vanek had an assist in that game. Stats do not reflect this).
Ken Holland loves his veterans, and we’ve seen at least one of them come into town almost every season. Brad Richards. Daniel Alfredsson. Frans Nielsen. Danny Cleary. Stephen Weiss. Steve Ott. Holland has picked them up for various terms and amounts, usually to a fair bit of scrutiny over said terms and amounts. Fans (myself included) have complained about bringing in forwards when the Wings already have a logjam down in Grand Rapids. Sometimes though, we as fans need to give credit where credit is due.
Thomas Vanek was a perfect veteran signing.
I’ve always loved Vanek. He’s from Austria, a country you don’t see a lot of players from, and he is a consistent offensive presence on every team he’s been a part of. I liked watching him play in Buffalo when I was younger, and in Minnesota more recently. Hell, I loved Thomas Vanek so much I named my first ever fantasy hockey team after him. (Vanek! At the Disco is also my only fantasy hockey team to ever make it to the Stanley Cup finals, so thanks for that Vanek)
So when Ken Holland signed him in the off season, naturally I was overjoyed.
Thomas Vanek has never scored less than 40 points in the NHL. His two lowest seasons were 41, one of which was last season in Minnesota and the other was the lockout shortened season in 2012-13 (Vanek played 38 games that season actually, 10 less than was possible, and still put up 41 points). Before being brought into Detroit, Vanek averaged .79 points per game. That may not be what you want from a first line player, but Vanek was being played on the 3rd line at Minnesota.
Yet it was that buyout in Minnesota that made me wonder if maybe I shouldn’t get too excited for Thomas Vanek. Why did they buy him out? I took a look through some of the comments over in the Minnesota Wild’s fan subreddit, to see what the average fan was noticing about Vanek (this is a fan blog, after all). The biggest thing that was held against him was that defensively, he caused too many problems for his ~20 goal output to make up for. Defensively, fans just didn’t think that he could make it playing more than 3rd line minutes. His CF% in Minnesota was 47.9%, which is not great (you want to be above 50 if you’re not that familiar with Corsi, above 50 means the team was controlling the puck more often than not with that player on the ice).
Couple that with his cap hit of 6.5 million, and Minnesota’s tenuous cap space already, they didn’t really have a choice to keep him. Whatever his offensive strengths, Thomas Vanek was too expensive for the Minnesota Wild to gamble on keeping, and teams weren’t lining up to absorb his cap hit either. Hence the buyout.
Why is Vanek Such a Good Veteran Signing then?
The circumstances that make Vanek the perfect veteran the Wings have signed in recent memory are threefold.
1) The Term and Amount Were Perfect
Ken Holland could have easily committed to multiple years with Vanek, and reception to him would have been much worse. Instead, we get a nice cozy 1 year deal with a relatively small 2.6 million cap hit. Vanek makes less than Abdelkater, less than Helm, less than Smith. On top of that, if he did turn out to be a defensive blackhole or fail to match offensive expectations, we aren’t beholden to him for the next 4 seasons creating (even more of) a logjam up front.
2) He’s Producing at a Great Rate
As of writing, Vanek has points in 11 of his 18 games played. His 14 pts (5G, 9A) are worthy of 5th on the team in points, and he has played in 11 less games than everyone above him. Not only has he played less games, but he’s 1 point behind Nyquist and 2 points behind both Nielsen and Green. He has one more solid game, and he’s suddenly in the conversation as the second highest point getter on the team. The Red Wings have 66 goals (which is terrible) and Vanek has 14 points, which means he’s involved in 21.2% of goals that the team has scored. When you pick up a guy for one year and 2.6 million, and he turns around and contributes to 1/5th of your goals while missing almost a third of the games, that’s pretty much all you can ask for from an offensive forward. His even strength CF% has dropped slightly, but with the whole team playing terrible that’s to be expected. He’s still ranked higher than Glendening, Ott, and Miller in that regards.
3) You Have Options With What You Do With Him
It’s getting awfully close to the time where we as fans need to accept that this is the year the streak will end. I’m not thrilled about it, I’m not advocating a tank. It’s possible the team will turn it around. But if they don’t, and we find ourselves outside the playoffs at the trade deadline, now you have a piece you can try and move for a pick or a prospect (or both). Couple years ago the Red Wings made a similar trade for David Legwand in exchange for Patrick Eaves, Calle Järnkrok, and a conditional pick. With the parity in the league right now, the Red Wings could get some pieces from a bubble team at the deadline.
If the Red Wings do turn it around and make the playoffs, maybe Thomas Vanek is the kind of veteran you want to keep around and give a short term extension too. I would much rather see Thomas Vanek take a small pay raise and continue to play in the bottom 6 than sign another nebulous player like Steve Ott because of his grit and intangibles. With Thomas Vanek, you get the veteran presence that teams are always looking for with a proven goal scoring upside. Of course, this part is also where it could go horribly wrong. Ken Holland could pull a Ken Holland and give him a 4 year extension at 4 million or something like that, and suddenly we have Thomas Vanek until he’s 36 at a cap hit that could be used on any number of approaching RFAs.
What’s Next for Thomas Vanek?
I don’t know where Thomas Vanek will end up after this season. He could end up wearing the Winged Wheel again, he could hit the Free Agent market, or maybe he’s going to get moved around at the deadline. All I know is right now, Vanek is a bright spot in a dim Red Wings season, and I hope he continues to play as well as he is now. And I hope Ken Holland pays attention to this signing, to see how being smart with term and money can pay off when you absolutely have to get that veteran presence.
Where he makes more signings like Vanek or not, the Red Wings playoff chances will certainly depend on it.