In Game 6 against the Boston Bruins, Thomas Vanek came to life, scoring two goals and wiping away concerns about his play after three straight games without one.
In Game 3 against the New York Rangers … well, we’ll see.
He’s gone three games without a goal, or a point for that matter, skating to a minus-3. His ice time dropped to a playoffs-low 11:41 in Game 2. Coach Michel Therrien then dropped him to the fourth line in practice, skating in a rotation with teammates like Danny Briere.
"In the Boston series, after the first [game] people started getting on him and he had a big game where he scored a couple goals," Briere said. "That's Thomas Vanek -- he can be dangerous at any time, he can come out and hurt you and make a big play. I'm not too worried about him. He seems to get it done when you least expect it."
Well, yeah, that’s the sunny side of Thomas Vanek, owner of hockey's most bipolar offense. He’s also the Adam Dunn of the NHL, one putting one over the fence for every six strikeouts.
That streakiness has defined him but it hasn’t ever crashed his stock, mainly because his highs are so high: Like that 20 points in 19 games for the Islanders from Dec. 20, 2013, through Jan. 25, 2014.
Also high: His salary. Vanek makes $7,142,857 against the cap (thanks Kevin Lowe) and is expected to be seeking as much (depending on term) when he hits the market as an unrestricted free agent this summer.
It used to be that “hits the market” meant “signs with the Minnesota Wild," as a prodigal son (well, at least for college) returns.
But like Vanek’s offense, things can change in an instant. Consider what’s happened to the principals in the last two months:
1. Minnesota Proved It Might Not Need Him
The Wild produced a respectable 2.69 goals per game in the playoffs, totally eclipsing the anemic 1.40 GPG they had in five games under Mike Yeo in the 2013 playoffs. Twenty-eight of their 35 goals came from forwards.
What the Wild learned in the playoffs: The future is bright. Mikael Granlund (22), Charlie Coyle (22), Erik Huala (23) and Nino Niederreiter (21) all landed in the top six goal scorers on the team.
The problem was on the blue line and in goal. As Mick Hatten wrote, in bemoaning a Vanek signing: “It feels like there’s a need for another solid all-around defenseman who can move the puck for the Wild. Call me crazy, but that’s where I’d spend my money in free agency.”
Could they use Vanek’s offense? Any team could. But at what cost to other areas of need, and at what cost to the continued maturation of young offensive stars?
2. Vanek’s Stock Has, in Fact, Dropped
Perhaps the streakiness plays betting in a one-newspaper town like Buffalo or in Long Island obscurity. In Montreal, Vanek is being fitted for goat horns due to his inconsistent play; and more than a few pundits have called him out for having his mind on the money and Minnesota.
Gazette columnist Jack Todd wondered if Vanek was “suffering from a sprained Minnesota and a broken Wild” after Game 2.
When times were good in Montreal, there was some talk that the Canadiens might actually consider bidding for Vanek in free agency. Now, it seems highly unlikely, given what a negligible impact he’s had on their run to the semi-finals. But will Minnesota welcome him now, after making inquiries at the deadline, but ultimately settling for Matt Moulson, because the acquisition cost and the dollars out were more affordable? Moulson wasn’t a great fit in Minnesota and the New York Islanders would do well to try and kiss and make up, after dealing him for Vanek in the first place. Minnesota has the great good fortune of having Dany Heatley’s $7-million cap hit disappear after this season, but committing that money to Vanek, a player of questionable playoff pedigree, seems ill-advised at this stage. The Wild seem to have a good thing going, with the group they’ve assembled now. Sitting out free agency this summer makes the most sense for them.
That “good thing going” could be read a few ways, and one of them is that Vanek might not be the guy you want in that room as a leader of young players.
An inescapable part of the pedigree for Vanek was that drunken mess of an Austrian team that played in Sochi. As Austrian Ice Hockey Federation President Dieter Kalt said: “[Chosing] Vanek as team captain to have an experienced player and this obviously went wrong.”
In fairness to Vanek, his struggles in the postseason might have some catalysts. There’s concern he’s injured, as Arthur Staple of Newsday writes:
“He briefly left Game 3 of the Bruins series after teammate P.K. Subban delivered a big hit on Boston's Reilly Smith and leg-whipped Vanek in the chest after the collision. Since that game, Vanek has two goals, but only seven shots on goal in six games.”
Vanek’s also complained about his usage in the playoffs, skating in a more counter-punch, defensive role with Tomas Plekanec’s line. “I think it’s a different role," he said, via the CBC. "We start a lot more in the [defensive] zone. But at this time of the year, it doesn’t matter where you’re at, you just want to be in the lineup and contribute."
(Vanek is starting 35.8 percent of his 5-on-5 shifts in the defensive zone through 13 games.)
In some ways, Vanek is experiencing what his former Buffalo Sabres teammate Ryan Miller experienced in St. Louis, after his own escape plan from Buffalo was executed. Neither of them were terrible – Vanek had 15 points in 18 regular-season games for Montreal after the Islanders trade, and is tied for the team lead with five playoff goals – but neither of them were the quintessential difference-makers they were acquired to be.
And hence, both of their stocks have fallen as free agents.
Again, it’s the streakiness that’s defined Vanek. One moment he’s the jewel of free agency, the next he’s a hot potato being tossed between St. Paul and Bell Centre. One moment he’s a leading scorer for Montreal, the next he’s skating fourth-line shifts with Brandon Prust.
One moment he’s scoreless in three games.
The next moment he skates into MSG, posts a multi-point game, the Canadiens are back in the series and Vanek’s stardom is lauded.
And no one would be surprised by it.
MORE EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS COVERAGE FROM YAHOO SPORTS:
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