Vanek won’t be with Isles for long, but trading him must address team defense

Adam Proteau
Thomas Vanek

According to a published report, New York Islanders left winger Thomas Vanek has rejected a lucrative contract extension and will be heading to the unrestricted free agent market this summer. Consequently, there’s little doubt the Isles will deal him prior to the March 5 trade deadline. But the issue now is about what they can get in exchange for Vanek’s services.

If that return doesn’t include significant help on defense and/or in goal, fans ought to be more outraged than they should about another losing season for the franchise.

The lack of a defenseman or goalie in the Oct. 27 trade that brought Vanek from Buffalo to Long Island was curious to begin with, but at least you could see what GM Garth Snow was trying to do: acquire and retain the services of an established, front-line winger to play alongside superstar center John Tavares. (Yes, the Isles had that in winger Matt Moulson, whom they dealt to the Sabres as part of the deal for Vanek, but the 30-year-old Austrian’s skill ceiling is seen by some hockey people to be higher than Moulson’s.) However, everything that’s transpired since the trade suggests Snow would be better served building from the back end out and making the Isles a more well-rounded squad, then approaching a top-tier scoring star to sign on for the long term.

The Islanders have the NHL’s 29th-worst defense (with an average of 3.28 goals-allowed-per-game) and its worst penalty kill (76.8 percent). That’s not on Tavares, Vanek, Moulson or any current or ex-Isles forward. Of course, everyone shares responsibility in the team defense concept, but one look at the franchise’s defense corps and netminding tells you that’s the area that needs urgent addressing.

It’s not as if cornerstone d-men and goalies are readily available on the trade market, but with Andrew MacDonald scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this year and 37-year-old Lubomir Visnovsky under contract only through next season, it isn’t as if Snow & Co. have any choice in facing the issue head-on. Well, they do have a choice, but not one that’s defensible (pun intended) if they decide to shuffle around deck chairs among their group of forwards.

Goaltending – also a distinct weakness in this era of Evgeni Nabokov and Kevin Poulin – is somewhat easier to deal with given how many options are available both in trade and in free agency. But another short-term, stopgap measure like Nabokov isn’t going to cut the mustard. There must be a commitment to consistency between the pipes so the Isles’ young defenseman can develop a comfortable bond with their own zone’s main resident.

Most people believe Vanek is destined to play for the Wild, but that should be of no concern to the Isles. They need to trade him wherever’s best for the franchise’s interests and let Vanek go to market after that if he so chooses.

But let there be no mistaking what the Islanders’ most pressing interest is. It’s all about being better defensively. That needs to be the legacy of Vanek’s departure, or we’ll be looking at this same scenario playing out in seasons to come when other elite players eschew the bright lights of the New York City area for teams that aren’t lit up in their own end on a nightly basis.