The Buffalo Sabres were the first NHL team to make a blockbuster trade this season, by shipping left winger Thomas Vanek to the Islanders for winger Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in 2014 and a second-round pick in 2015.
A deal of that magnitude this early in the season is rare in today’s salary cap world. Stars like Vanek – a potential unrestricted free agent playing for a struggling team – tend to be moved closer to the trade deadline.
The elements behind this trade made this situation different from the others. Given the rebuilding Sabres’ 2-11-1 start, GM Darcy Regier was more open to entertaining offers for Vanek now.
Regier may have seemed anxious to some, in trading his best forward before the ice has dried on the first month of the season, but there was no guarantee the Sabres GM would receive a better offer than the one he received Sunday night from the Islanders.
Hanging onto Vanek until the trade deadline also increases the risk of losing him to injury and, therefore, diminishing his trade value.
The other factor was the willingness of Islanders GM Garth Snow to gamble this early in the season.
Snow’s critics believe he wasted assets for a player who might not sign an extension in New York. It can also be argued acquiring a scoring forward does nothing to address the Islanders’ depth issues in goal and on the blueline.
Snow, however, didn’t want to jeopardize the momentum his club built up from last season, when they made the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Given what little talent is available in the trade market to address the Islanders’ more pressing needs, Snow decided to bolster his club’s strength to compensate for its weaknesses. If Vanek – a former 40-goal scorer – can develop the same on-ice chemistry Matt Moulson had with star center John Tavares, the offense Vanek brings could keep the Isles in playoff contention until a reputable defenseman or goaltender becomes available in the trade market.
Vanek and Moulson are both in the final years of their contracts, which presents both clubs with the dilemma of resigning them in the off-season.
Given Vanek’s ties to Minnesota, it’s widely assumed he’ll sign with the Wild next summer as a free agent. Snow, however, will try to sell the 29-year-old winger on sticking with the promising Islanders, especially with their move to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2015 on the horizon. If Vanek enjoys playing alongside Tavares, it could tip the scales in the Islanders favor.
As for the Sabres, their focus now shifts to potential free-agent goaltender Ryan Miller, who’s been a fixture in the rumor mill for months.
It’s been argued Miller, who’s been in decline the past three seasons, won’t attract as much of a return for the Sabres as Vanek did. Regier could be forced to wait until the trade deadline to attract suitable offers.
Regier told the Buffalo media he’s had no discussions lately with other clubs about Miller or the Sabres other free agents.
Miller’s $6.25-million cap hit will also be difficult to move. The Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Florida Panthers, Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames are the only five teams that have sufficient cap space to absorb his contract.
The Sabres could offer to absorb part of Miller’s contract as part of the trade negotiations, but the Vanek trade suggests Regier prefers to avoid that option.
Though Snow was willing to gamble on Vanek, he seems unwilling to part with prospects or younger players for a goaltender.
The Senators and Avalanche have no need to add a goaltender, while the Flames appear content with the tandem of Joey MacDonald and Karri Ramo. The Panthers lost Tim Thomas to a lower-body injury, but recalled Scott Clemmensen to backup Jacob Markstrom.
Injuries could force the Nashville Predators and Carolina Hurricanes into the trade market, while the struggling Edmonton Oilers could seek help if their goaltending fails to improve.
Regier doesn’t intend to just give Miller away. If the Vanek and Jason Pominville trades tell us anything, it’s that he’s looking to acquire draft picks and promising young players.
Unless another GM is willing to take a chance on Miller early in the season, it will take months before we see him leaving Buffalo.
Rumor Roundup appears weekdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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