It’s hard to escape the twin impressions that Thomas Vanek is just waiting for his chance to escape from Buffalo, and that his ultimate destination is the Minnesota Wild. Both, if accurate, would be bad news for the Buffalo Sabres.
Last April, it was Vanek who drove his friend and linemate Jason Pominville to the airport to join the Wild after the former Sabre was dealt at the NHL trade deadline. With Vanek a free agent this summer, Pominville’s the one being asked if Vanek might be making the same trip in July.
This is how Pominville responded to the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo when he made the inquiry:
It’s funny. It feels like I answer that question at least once or twice a day. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out. He’s a very smart guy and talented player. I’m sure he’ll take his time and make the best decision when the time comes.
It’s an understandable question.
On the one hand, the Wild have a clear slot for a player like Vanek both in their lineup and salary cap structure. Dany Heatley, whose career has taken a nosedive since leaving Ottawa, is in the final season of a contract that counts for $7.5 million against the cap. Heatley’s currently playing on a line with Pominville and young Wild centre Mikael Granlund.
On the other hand are the extensive ties Vanek has with Minnesota, ties detailed by Mike Harrington of The Buffalo News:
Vanek… won an NCAA championship in Buffalo in 2003 while playing for the University of Minnesota, and one of his teammates on that club was current Wild defenseman Keith Ballard. Vanek’s wife, Ashley, is a Minnesota native, and he makes his offseason home in the suburbs of the Twin Cities.
If those ties are being noted in the media, it’s certain that NHL management types haven’t overlooked them, and that’s something that could potentially hurt the Sabres if they attempt to move Vanek at the deadline. The thinking behind that view is that Vanek has more trade value to a team that plans to keep him long-term than to one using him as a rental, and if there’s only one team that thinks it can use him long-term, they have little incentive to pay full price.
The difference in value can be illustrated by a pair of recent deadline moves.
When the Los Angeles Kings acquired Dustin Penner at the 2011 deadline, they added a useful player—a guy with size and decent scoring ability—but also one that typically scored around 25 goals and had averaged less than 50 points per season over the previous few years. Penner cost them a first- and third-round pick, along with a pretty decent (at the time) prospect in Colten Teubert.
In contrast, when the Pittsburgh Penguins added Jarome Iginla—a player who hadn’t failed to hit the 30-goal mark in the previous five seasons—the cost was basically the same: a first-round pick and the rights to a pair of decent, but unspectacular, prospects.
The primary difference was that Penner was under contract for another year, whereas Iginla was a pure rental; there were other circumstances at play there too, but that was the big one.
For the Sabres, a team facing a daunting rebuild process, it is vital to get maximum value out of Vanek (and fellow pending free agent Ryan Miller). Ideally, that would mean a long-term contract extension, but if it comes down to a trade, they’ll get the best value if there’s room to convince the team acquiring Vanek that he’s more than a rental.