If Islanders win, Vanek could stay long-term

Ken Campbell
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If you wanted to find super agents Don Meehan or Pat Morris at the 2007 draft in Columbus, all you had to do was find New York Islanders GM Garth Snow. We tell you this because 2007 also happened to be the last time Snow traded a boatload for a star player with an expiring contract.

Snow was tailing Meehan and Morris in an effort to engage them in talks to get a new contract for Ryan Smyth, efforts which ultimately failed when Smyth signed with the Colorado Avalanche. So, for his efforts, Snow parted with what amounted to three first-round picks – all of them 15th overall coincidentally – for a player who played really well for them, but did not get them out of the first round of the playoffs. (The three players, Ryan O’Marra, Robert Nilsson and Alex Plante, had no-to-middling success in the NHL and all three are now playing in Europe.)

Which brings us to Snow’s latest acquisition, star left winger Thomas Vanek, nee of the Buffalo Sabres. On his first day in practice, Vanek found himself skating on the top line with John Tavares at center and Kyle Okposo on the right side, which is clearly not a bad gig. Should Vanek light it up with the Islanders, Snow will undoubtedly try to convince Vanek that the Islanders are a young team on the rise with tons of cap room and a new arena on the horizon.

Those discussions will happen, but Vanek will want to get himself settled first. He’ll likely want to see where the Islanders are headed before he makes any decisions on his future. That’s exactly what he did this summer when the Sabres approached him about a contract extension. Vanek basically told the team he wanted to see where the rebuild was going before he made any kind of commitment. He saw where it was going early and Sabres GM Darcy Regier obviously came to the conclusion that Vanek had no interest in being part of an organization that will build its team with successive terrible seasons and really high draft picks.

Vanek’s agent, Steve Bartlett, said he isn’t certain what his client will do if he’s approached mid-season concerning his contract. That’s because it has never happened with Vanek before, so it’s impossible to tell whether he’s one of those guys who strictly reserves such discussions and distractions for the off-season.

“Is it a foregone conclusion that he won’t sign (with the Islanders)? No,” Bartlett said. “Is it a foregone conclusion that he will sign? No. I can’t handicap it either way right now.”

Bartlett does have a point of reference, however. When his client, Doug Weight, signed with the Islanders in 2008, Bartlett thought Weight would play a couple of seasons with the Islanders, then retire to his permanent residence in St. Louis. But Weight fell in love with the place, was offered a job with the Islanders and has settled for good in the area. Since he’s now a consultant to Snow and assistant coach with the Islanders, expect Weight to be putting a bug in Vanek’s ear about how great it is there.

And as far as Vanek is concerned, the potential is certainly there. The Islanders are building a young, fast, dynamic team with the potential to be a playoff contender for years to come. But Vanek also has an enormous pull to Minnesota, where he played his college hockey and met his wife. For Ryan Suter, living close to his wife’s family was one of the main draws to the Wild and you know what they say about happy wife, happy life. Actually when you’ve earned as much money as Vanek has and stand to earn as much as he will, off-ice considerations are far more important than casual fans think, particularly for a player such as Vanek, a consummate pro who is all about the team.

That’s not to say money won’t play a part either, and there might be a real sticking point there, particularly given recent reports the Sabres were willing to make Vanek the highest paid player in the NHL. Tavares carries a cap hit of $5.5 million on a contract that has four years remaining after this season. Vanek will almost certainly command more than that on the open market this summer, so can the Islanders pay Vanek more than the cornerstone of their franchise?

But winning will play a part, too. And the best thing the Islanders could do to keep Vanek is take advantage of the fact that they’re in the worst division in hockey, win lots of games and get beyond the first round of the playoffs.