It has been widely speculated that Thomas Vanek will ultimately be a member of the Minnesota Wild, either before the trade deadline this season or when he becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1.
That might be a little premature, given how quickly and radically these situations can change, but it’s a good bet that Minnesota – where Vanek lives in the off-season – is on the short list of teams for which he can envision playing next season. And when he turned down an offer worth a reported $50 million over seven years from the New York Islanders, it all but guaranteed that he’ll be the crown jewel of the trade deadline madness.
And even though he carries a huge cap hit, the reality is that any team with cap issues would be able to get him as a rental this season for a little more than half a million dollars. It will take some creativity and a willingness to part for more than a team usually would for a rental, but there is definitely a way a team up against the cap would be able to fit him in for the rest of this season.
Here’s how. Going into this season, the last on Vanek’s contract, his cap hit was $7.14 million dollars. When the Buffalo Sabres traded Vanek to the Islanders in October, they retained $1.4 million of his salary and cap hit, leaving the Islanders with a cap hit of $5.75 million. Now when the Islanders trade Vanek, they could also agree, according to the collective bargaining agreement, to pick up 50 percent of that amount, which would bring Vanek’s cap hit with his new team to just $2.9 million. But salaries are based on what each team pays per day and if Vanek is dealt on March 5, almost 80 percent of his salary will have already been paid. Since there will be just 40 days remaining in a 195-day season, that would mean Vanek’s new team could get him in their lineup for the stretch run and the playoffs for as little as $590,000.
Why, you ask, would the Islanders be willing to pick up half Vanek’s cap hit in a trade? Well, if the team acquiring Vanek made it enticing enough with picks, prospects or young players, it might encourage the Islanders to do it. Let’s say, for example, that Vanek could normally fetch a first-round pick at the trade deadline. Well, if the Wild were willing to include a young player such as Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker or Justin Fontaine or even a prospect such as Matt Dumba or Mario Lucia, the Islanders might be willing to make that deal.
Why, you further ask, would the Wild be willing to give up such a large bounty for a player they’ll stand an excellent chance of signing July 1 without having to give up anything in return? Well, there are a couple of reasons.
The first is that the Wild has played long stretches without Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu and Josh Harding this season and are still in the thick of the playoff race. They’re a very good team and Vanek would make them better and more dangerous offensively in the short term. The second is that the Wild might not want to risk having him go to either Pittsburgh or Los Angeles at the trade deadline – two other possible destinations for Vanek – because what if he gets there, wins a Stanley Cup and discovers he loves playing there? Then the Wild will have missed out on him altogether.
And the third, and this is not to be overlooked, the team that owns Vanek’s rights leading up to July 1 can offer him an eight-year deal, while every other team can only offer him seven. Not only might that make the team more appealing to Vanek, it would allow the team to lessen the cap hit by having eight years over which to spread the total salary instead of seven.
By turning down the Islanders offer, Vanek has clearly made a statement that this has little do with either money or term, because he was offered plenty of both by the Islanders. It’s more about embracing that one time in a career when a player totally controls his destination as an unrestricted free agent. In fact, Vanek has already said the Islanders will be in the running for his services next season, even if they trade him before the deadline.
But Vanek’s agent, Steve Bartlett, was quick to caution that it’s not set in stone that Vanek will definitely test the free agent market July 1, opening the door to the possibility that he could sign a long-term deal with whichever team gets him at the deadline.
“I don’t think I would ever say (that he’ll definitely go past July 1),” Bartlett said. “I think that’s the way he’s leaning, but if he ended up loving the place and they made a great offer, he would listen.”