Islanders Gamble on Thomas Vanek; Sabres Play It Safe with Matt Moulson, Picks

Jonathan WillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 28, 2013

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 04: Thomas Vanek #26 of the Buffalo Sabres skates against the Ottawa Senators on October 4, 2013 at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)

On Sunday night, Newsday reporter Arthur Staple broke the news of a blockbuster deal between the New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres.

In one way, it’s a perfectly logical trade: a rebuilding team moving a pending free agent to a club with playoff ambitions. In another, it’s fascinating because of what it says about the two teams involved.

Let’s start with the New York Islanders.

Conventional wisdom says that the team that comes away with the best player usually wins the deal, and there is no arguing that Thomas Vanek is the best player in this deal. The question is whether he’s enough of an upgrade over Matt Moulson to be worth the significant price (a first- and second-round draft pick) paid.

Contract-wise, both players are pending unrestricted free agents.

Vanek has been relatively durable, missing 27 games in total over the last four seasons. Moulson has been even better, with just a single game lost in that span. For all that Vanek’s reputation outshines Moulson’s, the scoring rates are comparable, too: Over an average 82 games Vanek scores 32 times and adds 37 assists, while Moulson scores 32 times and records 28 helpers.

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Career path, rather than recent results, is the biggest reason the two have such differing reputations.

Thomas Vanek was a fifth overall pick in the vaunted 2003 draft. He scored 25 goals as a rookie and was seen as a future NHL star right up until he became an actual NHL star.

Matt Moulson was selected in the ninth round, as an overager, in the same year; he toiled in relative obscurity until the Islanders plucked him from the minor leagues in his mid-20s and stuck him in a scoring role. While Vanek drives the offence, the suspicion has always been that Moulson is a purely complementary player riding John Tavares’ coattails.

A look at the on-ice statistics of Moulson and Tavares together and apart does much to dispel the notion that the former is a parasite on the latter. If anything, their relationship looks more like symbiosis given how either has seen his on-ice results drop when separated from the other.

5-on-5 goal and shot attempt ratios, 2009-13
PlayerGoal %Corsi %
Moulson and Tavares together50.050.6
Moulson without Tavares53.446.6
Tavares without Moulson38.846.6

The chart above shows five-on-five goal- and shot-attempt (Corsi) ratios with Tavares and Moulson on the ice. A number higher than 50 percent means the Islanders out-scored or out-shot the opposition, while a number below 50 percent indicates the opposite. The key numbers are the on-ice shot-attempt percentages for Tavares and Moulson: Moulson’s on-ice results dropped when he played with other centres, but Tavares’ numbers dipped when separated from Moulson, too.

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Here the experience of Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau is illuminating.

Like Moulson, Parenteau was a minor-league discovery who found success with Tavares in his mid-20s. Colorado bet hard that Parenteau was more than just a product of Tavares when they signed him as a free agent in the summer of 2012, and thus far it’s paid off: Through 59 games with the Avalanche, Parenteau has 21 goals and 50 points.

The expectation that Moulson will follow a similar path is why this trade looks like a win for Buffalo right now. The Sabres added a first- and second-round draft pick from a team on the playoff bubble in the East, and they did it at the cost of moving down from an extremely good pending free agent to simply a very good pending free agent.

That downgrade looks even better given an Associated Press report indicating that Thomas Vanek was never interested in being part of a lengthy rebuilding process. If Moulson finds success on a line with Cody Hodgson, he may be more open than Vanek was to re-signing with Buffalo.

If Moulson isn’t amenable to staying with the Sabres then Buffalo is no worse off. They have the option of flipping him for more future picks at this year’s deadline.

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For the Islanders, meanwhile, this trade looks like yet another high-risk move for a team with a long history of them. A team that has lived around the playoff bubble the last few seasons just paid through the nose for a rental player with no guarantee that said player will re-sign with them.

The last time they did that it didn’t work out very well.

More than that, the upgrade from Moulson to Vanek is likely less than reputation would suggest, and the loss of two key draft picks makes the Islanders less able to address other needs at the deadline.

This is a gamble for Isles general manager Garth Snow, and it could go either way for his team.

There is less uncertainty for the Sabres.

Even if Moulson falters they have added two big assets for their rebuild—and if Moulson plays well, they have the potential for a big win here.