What's Wrong with Minnesota Wild Free-Agent Signing Thomas Vanek?

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterOctober 28, 2014

ST. PAUL, MN - OCTOBER 09: Thomas Vanek #26 of the Minnesota Wild passes the puck against the Colorado Avalanche during the season opener on October 9, 2014 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. (Photo by Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

Here's what Minnesota Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said to the media after he signed Thomas Vanek to a three-year, $19.5 million contract on the first day of free agency:

This guy has been a premier scorer since he entered the League. He still managed to have 68 points despite playing in three cities. We really wanted a [right-handed] shot, we wanted someone who can play with top players, and we wanted someone who can help our power play.

Through seven games, an admittedly small sample size, Vanek has looked more like the player who disappointed in the playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens than the guy who put up big numbers with the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders last season.

The 30-year-old Vanek has zero goals and four assists, which isn't disastrous, but he has just 14 shots on goal. That's an alarmingly low number for a player who had 248 shots in 78 games in his three stops last season and 119 shots in 38 games in 2013.

He has three shots on goal in his past four games, two of which saw Vanek record zero shots, and half of his shots came in one contest.

It's either a slump that defies his career stats or a worrisome trend that began at the end of last season.

Vanek seemed to be disinterested in shooting the puck in the playoffs with the Canadiens, registering just 28 shots on goal in 17 games. That reluctance to shoot seems to have spilled into the 2014-15 regular season.

That, of course, translates into poor possession numbers. The Wild are the NHL's top Fenwick close team at 57.2 percent. Vanek's Fenwick close is 54.5 percent.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 27:  Thomas Vanek #26 of the Minnesota Wild skates against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on October 27, 2014 in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Wild 5-4.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

“As a team and for myself, I think you just need that first one and hopefully it opens up,” Vanek told TwinCities.com on Oct. 19, when his scoreless streak was only at four games. “I don’t feel like I’m squeezing my stick (too tight) quite yet, we had some good looks they’re just not going in right now.”

Considering Vanek has started 61.8 percent of his shifts in the offensive zone, most among Wild forwards, his start to 2014-15 has been extremely disappointing.

Vanek has taken almost all of his even-strength shifts with center Mikko Koivu, whose Corsi percentage is 47.0 with Vanek on his wing. It's Vanek's two other regular linemates who paint a picture of the veteran dragging down his teammates.

Charlie Coyle's Corsi percentage is 43.1 with Vanek and 57.1 percent away from him. Justin Fontaine registers a 50.0 percent with Vanek and 51.9 percent without him.

Moreover, Koivu's Fenwick percentage was around 56 percent over the previous two seasons before Vanek arrived in Minnesota.

At 30, this could be the player Vanek is now. Vanek has been a negative Fenwick relative player in five of the previous six seasons.

That would be tolerable for a top-line player going against top checking lines and defense pairs, but for a player starting so many shifts in the offensive zone while Mikael Granlund's line with Zach Parise and Jason Pominville (Minnesota's top possession trio this season) dominate in tougher situations, it's a potential long-term problem.

Vanek's value also comes potentially on the power play, but that's been the sorest sore spot for the Wild this season.

The Wild are 0-for-24 on the power play, falling to score a goal in 52:51 of man-advantage time, sixth-most this season. Vanek has played 30:17 on the power play, generating zero goals on five shots.

The struggles on the power play have a lot more to do with the entire team, but Vanek has been just as culpable for its ineptitude as anyone.

What's the solution? It could be patience, as Vanek is on his fourth team, coach and system in 12 months and could just need time to adjust.

Given his track record, the Wild may need to accept that he will be a below-average possession player, but as long as he starts filling the netespecially on the power playhis even-strength deficiencies can be overlooked.

Coach Mike Yeo may have to mix up his lines in order to provide more balance, perhaps swapping Pominville or Parise for Vanek. However, breaking up a stellar possession line this season could have an overall detrimental effect on a team that doesn't need to bend over backwards to "fix" a player who's historically been productive.

If Vanek doesn't get himself going, moving Nino Niederreiter or Fontaine to a more regular spot on the second line and dropping Vanek to the third line may be the best answer to Vanek and the team's problems.

Of course, if Vanek scores three goals in Boston on Tuesday night, just delete this page from your browser history and never acknowledge its existence on the Internet.

All statistics via NHL.com, Hockey-Reference.comProgressive Hockey, Behind the Net and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com.

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveLozo.


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