Thomas Vanek (Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images)
At one point, he was a 40-goal scorer. But that season seems light years away and now the veteran right winger needs to mend his reputation in the NHL. Can the Red Wings find value in a player who was scratched from a playoff drive and then bought out by Minnesota?
For Red Wings fans who find themselves wincing right now, let's put the Thomas Vanek signing in perspective: it's only one year and it's only $2.6 million.
True, when the Minnesota Wild was battling for a playoff spot this past season, they felt it best that Vanek was a healthy scratch. When they did indeed make the post-season, Vanek was felled by an upper-body injury and did not participate. He was bought out by the Wild recently, ending a bittersweet tenure in Minnesota, the state he starred in with the NCAA's Golden Gophers. So Detroit is obviously taking a chance on the guy. Vanek is 32 years old and for all his faults, he still popped in 18 goals and 41 points this season. Defensively, he is not strong. Possession-wise, he is not strong. This can only be seen as an experiment by Detroit, wherein the best-case scenario is a player that adds offense to a team that had fewer goals than any other playoff team in 2015-16. Worst-case scenario? He's a healthy scratch and gone by the end of the season. As of now, the Red Wings only have three prominent restricted free agents to re-sign: Petr Mrazek, Danny DeKeyser and Teemu Pulkkinen. The Wings don't have a lot of cap space, though I'm going to assume Johan Franzen' health could bring cap relief once the season begins. No way GM Ken Holland signs Vanek without having a plan for the rest of his ducks. And for Vanek this is a huge year. If he can't re-establish himself in Detroit, what happens next season? I can't imagine another franchise seeing him fail in Detroit and saying "well, maybe he just needs a change of scenery." So if self-preservation is an instinct that Vanek possesses, he'll work every shift like it will be his last in the NHL. In that case, both he and the Wings will win on this one. If not, this may be the end of his career in North America. It would be quite a coup for the Austrian League, I'll say that.
WHAT ADVANCED STATS SAY: Remember Dany Heatley? Well, you’re seeing it again with Thomas Vanek. Used to be an elite goal scorer and is now declining rapidly? Check. Horrific defense? Check. Vanek is a very risky player as he’s nowhere near the same player he used to be and his defensive play is a gigantic concern as almost every other forward in the league has performed better than he has over the last three years in their own zone. That used to be fine when he could score, but that scoring talent has dropped steadily every year. At one year and $2.6 million, it’s definitely a worthwhile gamble as a sheltered powerplay specialist, and in a good cultural environment like Detroit it might even work out just fine. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t because Vanek’s play has essentially fallen off a cliff.
By Dominik Luszczyszyn