No one was happy that Thomas Vanek crashed and burned in Minnesota.
Not the player, who returned to a place he calls home as a former Gophers star, and saw his the final year of his three-year deal bought out after a putrid 2015-16.
Not the Wild, although frankly they should have known better than to hand out that contract to what was obviously a redundancy in their lineup. Although they were probably happy to get the cap space back after last season. Not the Wild fans, who watched a promising big-name free agent deteriorate into a shell of his offensive self.
And not Vanek’s agent, who was surprised by the buyout news and then had to do some heavy lifting: Finding a spot for his client where his offensive potential could be better tapped; a spot where he could contend for a playoff berth but also show the rest of the NHL that he wasn’t toast at 32 years old.
Enter Ken Holland, GM of the Detroit Red Wings.
“When we traded the Datsyuk cap space to Arizona at the draft, getting a center was a priority, if we could. We felt that Frans Nielsen was … if not the No. 1 centerman on the free agent market, he was right there. His cap number was $5.25 million. We still had some cap space available,” said Holland on NHL Network Radio last week.
He stayed in contact with Bartlett after the buyout, sensing that Vanek could bring something to the Wings they lacked. “We struggled to score last year. We struggled to score on the power play,” he said. “Thomas had been bought out in Minnesota. We talked to a number of people. We thought on a one-year deal, it was a good gamble. We felt like we’d have a motivated athlete.”
So they handed him a $2.6 million “show me” contract for one season.
The results, so far, have met expectations and perhaps exceeded them.
Vanek has seven points in six games. Three of them came in a win over the Ottawa Senators, and two of them were goals against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the season opener. Four of them have come on the power play, which no doubt makes Holland happy. Offensively, he’s clicked with Gustav Nyquist and Darren Helm to create the most offensively effective line on the Wings – even if Vanek (45.4 percent Corsi) and Helm (46.5) are leaving a bit to be desired at even strength from a possession standpoint.
“He’s produced on the power play. We thought on a one-year deal, we had a chance to hit a home run,” said Holland. “He’s been everything we could hope for, but obviously there’s a long way to go.”
Well, yeah. And Vanek is, historically, one of the wildest streaky point producers in the NHL. Look no further than last season, when he had 10 goals and nine assists in the first 22 games for the Wild.
In his last 44 games? Seven goals, 10 assists, for a career-worst 41 points. And then, poof, he was gone in the offseason.
This was always going to be a good bet for the Wings, because it was at a relatively low cost with only a year of commitment. So far it’s paying dividends. For how long depends entirely on Vanek.
“As long as I can believe in myself, like I do, I’ve been working hard already and I feel good. I think I can score 25, 30 goals in the right situation,” Vanek said after buyout.
So far, Detroit seems like that kind of fit.
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