Thomas Vanek notched 28 goals and 53 points in 71 games for Buffalo last season. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
You’ll forgive me, Sabres fans, if these next several hundred words come off as cheeky or even heart-wrenching. But last week I got to thinking about the exciting crop of rookies Edmonton has joining them this coming season – and how they all could have been Buffalo Sabres.
Remember back in the summer of 2007 when then-Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe started a firestorm with his seven-year, $50-million offer sheet to restricted free agent Thomas Vanek? On the heels of a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season, Buffalo had already lost co-captains Danny Briere and Chris Drury to unrestricted free agency and Sabres GM Darcy Regier made it clear Vanek wasn’t going to be the next big name to leave town.
Regier had gotten word Lowe was up to something and warned the Oilers GM any offer to Vanek would be matched. “I guess he thought we were bluffing,” Regier said at the time.
Vanek was coming off a 43-goal, 84-point, plus-47 sophomore season and it seemed the sky was the limit for the then 23-year-old. With a fan base screaming for some protectionism, the Sabres really had no choice but to appease them. But the compensation Buffalo would have received for losing the left winger was as staggering as the offer sheet the young sniper signed – four first round draft picks.
Looking back at it three summers later, the Sabres would have been better off letting Vanek walk. Yes, the Austrian has scored 104 goals since and, yes, he’s still just 26, but all things being equal, just imagine…
In the 2008 draft, Buffalo would have had Edmonton’s 12th overall selection and its own at No. 13. After a trade the Sabres did end up with the 12th and wisely selected Tyler Myers. But with the 13th they could have had THN’s 2010 No. 2 Future Watch prospect, Florida goaltender Jacob Markstrom, or our No. 5 in Washington blueliner John Carlson or soon-to-be Oiler Jordan Eberle, the sixth-best prospect in our issue and the youngest player to ever suit up for Canada at the World Championship. Either of those three, plus Myers and Tyler Ennis (whom the Sabres chose 26th overall that year) would have been quite a haul.
Last summer Buffalo would have had Edmonton’s pick at No. 10 and its own, again at 13th overall. That 10th pick became another soon-to-be Oilers winger in Magnus Paajarvi, who just led bronze medal-winning Sweden in scoring at the worlds as a 19-year-old. With the 13th pick, Buffalo chose skilled banger-and-crasher Zack Kassian, a player who could challenge for an NHL job as soon as this coming fall.
But the jackpot would have hit this summer – the first overall pick in Taylor Hall. Couple him with defenseman Mark Pysyk – whom we ranked as the 16th-best draft prospect in our 2010 Draft Preview edition, but Buffalo got with the 23rd selection – and you’ve got another bounty of first round riches.
Then, of course, there’d still be another – likely high – first-rounder to come in the 2011 draft.
The naysayers will vow Vanek would have made the Oilers a better team. I agree, but don’t forget that once Lowe failed to poach Vanek he went right out and nabbed behemoth winger Dustin Penner with an offer sheet that Anaheim was unable to match. Penner wouldn’t be in Edmonton if Vanek was.
Granted, Vanek has scored 32 more goals than Penner the past three seasons, but with an average of about 10 more scores per season, would the Oilers have climbed that much higher in the standings? I don’t think so. But even if Edmonton had fallen a few spots in the draft in 2008 and ’09, that would have been off-set by Buffalo’s rise in the draft without Vanek.
I’ll call it a wash.
And no matter if Vanek was with the Oilers last season; nothing would have kept them out of the league’s basement and therefore in the Hall sweepstakes. With Ales Hemsky, Nikolai Khabibulin and Sheldon Souray all out for most of the season, Edmonton was missing its three most important players. Also, Penner actually outscored Vanek last year, so don’t tell me the latter would have been the difference.
So let me lay it out: If they had allowed Vanek to go to the Oilers, the Sabres would have Hall, Eberle, Paajarvi or other top prospects and another high pick to come to complement Myers, Ennis, Kassian and everyone else in the fold.
That’s a trade I’d make in a heartbeat.
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