We are a week into free agency and a top ten member of the class is still available. Thomas Vanek, ranked eighth among PHR’s Top 50 Free Agents, still remains unsigned to the surprise of many. Vanek was a free agent last summer as well, after having the final season of a three-year $19.5MM contract with the Minnesota Wild bought out. While there were questions about his game then as well, and an apparent lack of interest that led to a one-year, $2.6MM deal with the Red Wings (a 60% drop in value from his $6.5MM AAV with the Wild), there was still sufficient enough demand that Detroit felt they had to lock him up right away on July 1st. This year? Not so much.
The strange thing about Vanek’s 2017 scenario is that he is coming off a strong, redeeming campaign. Rather than last summer, when he was fresh off the worst season of his career and a buyout, Vanek instead entered the free agent market this year with a 38-point season under his belt, seven more points in six less games than 2015-16. Vanek played extremely well in Detroit, posting 15 goals and 23 assists in 48 games, creating plenty of buzz around his trade deadline status. Although rumors swirled that Vanek would like to re-sign with the Red Wings, the team nevertheless got what they could for him, sending Vanek to the Florida Panthers for Dylan McIlrath and a third-round draft pick. In Florida, Vanek added two goals and eight assists in 20 games, but it wasn’t enough for the Panthers to make the playoffs and Vanek was out of time to show off for teams in need of scoring this summer.
Apparently, he needed to do more in 2016-17. With 697 points in 885 NHL games, Vanek’s history as an elite scorer is well established. A two-time 40-goal scorer and power play wizard, who has twice in his career topped a point-per-game pace for a whole season, there is little doubt about Vanek’s track record of creating offense. However, there are questions as to just how fast that offensive ability is slowing down. Vanek is certainly no longer a threat for 40 or even 30 goals, nor does he sit atop the league in man-up production any more. While he seemingly proved in Detroit that he can still deliver 40 or 50 points, he also looked slower up and down the ice and lacked the same quickness and creativity in the offensive zone that he used to have. The lack of interest could also be due to a noticeable drop-off in defensive ability. Vanek was never a Selke candidate, but he has always played a sound two-way game. As he has slowed down the past two years, his defensive stats have dropped off and he often looked solely focused with keeping up on offense, rather than playing a complete game. Endurance, and all that it entails in the back-and-forth game of hockey, simply seems to be an issue for Vanek and is unlikely to improve.
Nonetheless, 48 points is 48 points and there is a reason why Vanek was ranked #8 out of all free agents. The shooting ability and offensive instincts are still there for the 33-year-old, and 45-year-old Jaromir Jagr is still making that skill set work in the NHL. It’s only a matter of time before Vanek signs somewhere, but just like last summer, it appears as if it could be another bargain for a player whose age and pace of play seemed to be blown out of proportion while his experience and offensive contribution are under-rated.
We originally projected that Vanek would return to the Florida Panthers, who were in need of scoring help, especially with Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith now in Las Vegas. However, Dale Tallon and the Panthers went in a different direction, bringing back Evgeni Dadonov from the KHL and inking a different veteran scorer, Radim Vrbata. Like Vrbata and Jagr, Vanek seems best-suited for one-year or short-term deals the rest of the way, especially if he’s struggling to establish his value. Who could use a short-term scorer? A return to Detroit could make sense. The fit worked out great and there were talks of an extension prior to the deadline trade, so the two sides might see if Lightning can strike twice. The Red Wings lack much cap space and should be rebuilding, but GM Ken Holland might have missed that memo. Another possibility could be the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks are still a contender out West, just one year removed from a Stanley Cup appearance, but have had a very quiet off-season and just lost a high-scoring veteran winger in Patrick Marleau. This year’s Western Conference Cup qualifier, the Nashville Predators, traded away a key forward in Colin Wilson and have more than enough cap space to squeeze Vanek in if they so choose. The Boston Bruins could use another scoring threat in the top nine and they might not mind having Vanek, notorious for his strong play against Boston during his years with the Sabres and Canadiens, on their side for once. Finally, don’t rule out the Los Angeles Kings, who certainly don’t need to get slower, but who surely need more scoring with few dependable options left on the market.
We predicted that Vanek would sign a one-year, $3MM deal this off-season, a logical next step after a bounce back season on a one-year, $2.6MM contract. That range still seems reasonable, unless the market really is as quiet as it seems and no one is willing to pony up that kind of money. The affordable contracts signed by aging scorers like Kris Versteeg (#26) and Ales Hemsky (#44) combined with the availability of Jagr (#13), Drew Stafford (#21), and Jiri Hudler (#40), doesn’t help Vanek’s cause. He’s not ready to retire and he won’t move overseas, but don’t be surprised if Vanek remains unsigned, holding out for market value, before finally signing for less than he did last summer.