The curious case of Thomas Vanek, Mr. Free Agent 2014

Thomas Vanek (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)

Thomas Vanek has been the gift that keeps on giving this season.

Not for his three teams, of course, but from an observer’s standpoint, that little #20 domino has spawned more storylines this year than during his entire tenure in Buffalo.

First, he was the sacrificial lamb (one of them) for the rebuilding Sabres. Then, he was expected to help John Tavares put the New York Islanders over top and get them into the playoffs. Next, after the losses and the contract offers piled up on Long Island, he was the guy they just couldn’t pay to stay. And off he went to Montreal, where he would help them to the playoffs before earning the goat horns in the Habs’ third-round elimination.

Vanek wasn’t terrible in Montreal. He wasn’t the reason they lost. But he didn’t help much when it mattered, either. The Austrian put up five goals and 10 points in 17 games. That’s OK, but nowhere near his 27-goal, 68-point regular season pace. And with just two points in his final seven playoff games, there’s no denying he pulled a disappearing act. Maybe his mind was in Minnesota, but more likely (he’s a professional, after all) he suffered an injury that we’ll hear about in the coming weeks.

But injury or not, just look at the carnage in his wake. The perennially-rebuilding Islanders are down a first-round pick in the Connor McDavid draft next year. They also lost a second-rounder in the Buffalo trade, and while they recouped it when they sent Vanek to Montreal, the Habs’ pick won’t be as high as the Islanders’ one would have been. And what else do they have? Only 2012 second-round pick Sebastian Collberg, and a fifth-round pick.

Oh, and the Islanders have another gaffe to hang on Garth Snow – one that nears Mike Milbury-esque levels of catastrophe.

The Habs, at least, got six goals and 15 points out of Vanek after the trade deadline, and a pair of two-goal games against the hated Boston Bruins in the second round. That’s well worth the rental price they paid, even if he faded later on.

Through all of this, only Buffalo comes out smelling like a rose. They now have a first-round pick in the McDavid draft (and it could be a lottery pick, knowing the Islanders) along with the Islanders’ second-rounder in that draft, too. They also flipped Matt Moulson – their return in the Vanek trade – to Minnesota for second-round picks in 2014 and 2016. That’s a first-rounder and three second-rounders: pure money, when you’re a rebuilding team.

And what of Vanek?

He reiterated at the Canadiens’ locker cleanout today that he’s determined to hit free agency, and with the dearth of big names on the UFA market, he’ll cash in somewhere. He could command top dollar from a desperate team (read: Islanders), or, more likely, he’ll follow his heart back to his old college stomping grounds in Minnesota.

The Wild will have upwards of $20 million in cap space next season, and if Dany Heatley, Ilya Bryzgalov and Matt Moulson walk, their only big re-signing will be Nino Niederreiter. They’ll need some of that money to fill out a roster with only 17 players locked in right now, but if Vanek takes less than Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, he could definitely fit in.

So where does this leave everything?

The Islanders lose, the Sabres win, the Canadiens win (sort of).

And Vanek?

He’s heading to free agency, where he’ll be one of the best players available.

He wins, more than anyone.