The hottest team in the Eastern Conference right now? The New York Islanders, who have won four straight, and are 8-2-0 in their last 10.
Not that the run has done much to improve their place in the standings. They remain the blogger of the Metropolitan Division, making their noise from the basement. The Islanders remain firmly last in the NHL's Metropolitan Division, eight points out of a playoff spot.
That's okay, though. At this point, the playoffs are a secondary concern for this team. If they can keep winning, there is, of course, an outside possibility that the Islanders could challenge for a spot, especially in the dismal Metro, but truthfully, a strong finish for the club is important for another reason:
It's the only way they'll be able to re-sign Thomas Vanek.
No doubt the Islanders are going to throw a ton of money at Vanek to convince him to remain on with the club rather than testing unrestricted free agency. That was the plan when Garth Snow acquired the talented winger from the Buffalo Sabres early in the year. Like he did with Evgeni Nabokov and Lubomir Visnovsky, Snow is banking on prolonged exposure to the Islanders -- or maybe just the asbestos in Nassau Coliseum -- softening Vanek's determination to go elsewhere, and allowing him to sign on for several more years in orange and blue.
But it's going to take more than money. Vanek knows there's a lot of it waiting for him wherever he goes in the summer. In order to forgo that in favour of an extension in Long Island, he needs to see a potential Stanley Cup winner here, especially after his repeated comments about not wanting to be part of the rebuild in Buffalo.
At first, this didn't seem all that likely, with the Islanders winning just four games in November, Vanek's first month with the club.
December wasn't much better. The Islanders won just five games.
But things have begun to turn around. The Islanders closed 2013 strongly, winning three of their final four, including a big New Year's Eve victory over the Boston Bruins.
The good vibes continued on into January, where the Islanders have won 5 of 6, thanks in large part to Vanek's budding chemistry with captain John Tavares, who was named the NHL's first star of the week on Monday.
With all this positivity surrounding Long Island, now seems the ideal time to start talking extension. But it looks like serious talks are still a little ways away. From Newsday:
Contract talks have not begun in earnest between Thomas Vanek's agent and the Islanders, but Vanek isn't concerned. There have been initial discussions, but both sides still are waiting to see the direction the Islanders will go in the next month heading into the Olympic break and the March 5 trade deadline.
"I'm sure we'll talk, but I'm trying to stay out of it," Vanek said. "Until something gets close, I need to focus on the games."
In other words, these next three months are crucial, and not just for the Islanders' faint playoff hopes, but for their hopes of convincing Vanek to stick around long-term.
I'd say the latter goal is far more important. Even if they do make the postseason this year, they're not winning the Cup. But if Vanek opts to remain an Islander, it certainly increases their chances in the coming years.
The Islanders aren't making a playoff push. They're making a Vanek push. The whole teams is negotiating this extension.