Vanek worth the gamble for size-challenged Canadiens

Thomas Vanek

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Vanek will not bump his head the first time he walks into the Montreal Canadiens dressing room. But he will instantly become the team’s top scorer and one of its biggest forwards when he does.

It was a move few saw coming, but the Canadiens immediately moved to the “Winners” category of the trade deadline when they acquired Vanek from the hapless New York Islanders. Vanek is the kind of player who can be a very real difference maker in Montreal and with the Eastern Conference so wide open, could provide the Canadiens with the kind of player who can put them over the top. While heavier hitters such as the Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins looked to be the frontrunners for the crown jewel of the deadline, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin was the one who came up with Vanek and good on him for doing it.

With Vanek, the Canadiens get a lot of what they’re lacking right now – size up front, a presence with impact in front of the net and a forward who can score 5-on-5. He will undoubtedly make the Canadiens a more offensively dangerous team and gives them far more than secondary offense. As it stands now, the Canadiens are the lowest-scoring team that is currently in a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Vanek can play either wing, although the more natural fit for him seems to be on the left side, which was where he was playing with the Islanders. The best thing about that is it moves the hugely disappointing and unproductive Rene Bourque out of the Canadiens top six forwards and gives the Canadiens a formidable top two lines. You’d have to think the Canadiens will keep the line of David Desharnais between Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher together, which might move Vanek to the left side with Tomas Plekanec at center and Brian Gionta on the right side.

Actually, the Canadiens might want to see what Vanek can accomplish with Daniel Briere, a proven playoff performer who might mix well with Vanek. The reason for that is there are few players in the league who can score in tight better than Briere can and Vanek’s work in front of the net will give Briere more opportunities to score from that position. Vanek is a consummate team guy who has been well liked by his teammates wherever he has gone, so there should be no concerns with team chemistry.

And you’d have to think that Vanek, faced with the possibility of playing meaningful games for the first time in three years, will be rejuvenated and eager to perform for some of the most zealous and demanding fans in the league. These situations sometimes bring out the best in a player and sometimes the worst, and a player of Vanek’s character and makeup should thrive there.

That takes care of now, but what about beyond this season? Well, Vanek has already made it pretty clear he wants to test unrestricted free agency, which would certainly make it difficult for the Canadiens to re-sign him. But remember, if they hang onto his rights up to July 1, they’re the only team that will be able to offer him an eight-year deal. Anyone signing him from Montreal will have to settle for offering seven. So let’s say Vanek has a number in mind for the total value of his next contract. Only Montreal will have the advantage of spreading that total and cap hit over eight years. And the Canadiens will likely be counting on Vanek enjoying his stay in Montreal so much that he’ll forget about the Minnesota Wild.

Or perhaps Vanek will ride off after this season and sign in Minnesota, an organization that should count its blessings that so many free agents have wives who are from that area. In that case, the Canadiens would be left with nothing and will have given up a prospect and picks for a player who might not even be able to get them out of the first round.

That will not diminish what Marc Bergevin did today. His bold move sent waves through the Eastern Conference and his own dressing room that the Canadiens have what it takes to mount a serious playoff run now. They made this deal knowing there’s a good chance they’re going to get, at the most, 18 regular season games and the playoffs for him.

And it’s a gamble the Canadiens were willing to take. It was the same gamble New York Islanders GM Garth Snow was prepared to make when he traded for Vanek early in the season. You’ll remember the Islanders were coming off a successful season in 2012-13 and looked to be a team on the rise and Snow felt having a player like Vanek there this season would make his team a serious playoff contender.

It’s kind of the same thought process Bergevin had, only Snow had it sooner. That’s why he paid such a large price for him. Snow did not envision at the time that he’d be going down to the wire with Vanek and scrambling to trade him in a market that was suddenly flat for star players with expiring contracts. It turns out prospect Sebastian Collberg and conditional second- and fifth-round picks was the best deal available and Snow did not have the luxury of keeping Vanek beyond the deadline and losing him for nothing. Snow will probably get crucified for this, but nobody was throwing bricks at him when he made the calculated risk by acquiring Vanek with visions of him making magic with John Tavares. And nobody should be throwing them now.

(Editor’s note: line combos in paragraph four were updated after initial publication)