New York Islanders GM Garth Snow paid far too great a price to land Thomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres on Sunday. Giving up a first- and second-round pick in the draft is fine, but including Matt Moulson in the deal is evidence that Snow and the Islanders didn’t see the big picture.
Looking at their goal totals over the past four years, there’s not much difference between Vanek and Moulson. They are both the same age. They are both playing under a contract that will expire after the season. It’s fair to say Vanek is the more “skilled” player, but to portray Moulson as this garbage-collecting goal scorer whose numbers are entirely predicated on playing with John Tavares are exaggerated and unfair. Vanek and Moulson simply have different ways of putting the puck in the net, and both are really good at doing just that.
Sabres GM Darcy Regier has been arguably the worst GM in hockey over the past few years – the contracts of Tyler Myers and Ville Leino are evidence of that, along with extending Patrick Kaleta and adding John Scott in the pursuit of toughness that has submarined the team – but he deserves all of the credit here. It’s possible he’ll be able to flip Moulson for another first-round pick before the trade deadline. That’s a great haul for Vanek.
On just the face of the deal, that’s a lot to hand over to the Sabres for Vanek. There’s no guarantee Tavares and Vanek will work as well together as Tavares and Moulson have for four-plus seasons, and the least of the Islanders’ problems right now are goal scoring. They are among the worst defensive teams in the NHL, and Vanek isn’t contributing to that area.
But a deeper look shows the Islanders may have been bidding against themselves in what was a thin market for Vanek, only because of his hefty $7.1 million cap hit.
A quick look at the front page of capgeek.com shows nearly half the league’s team pressed tightly against the salary cap. As of today, 24 teams have less than $7.1 million in cap room. That doesn’t prevent teams from acquiring Vanek, obviously, but they would have to either give up a player currently contributing or the Sabres would have to retain a portion of Vanek’s salary. History shows teams generally don’t give up a player of Moulson’s caliber in a deal like this, especially if that team is “going for it,” as they say.
Through 10 games, how many of those teams were ready to alter the makeup of their roster in such a drastic fashion? Very few, if any. The Ottawa Senators have nearly $10 million in cap room, but they are allegedly strapped for cash. The Colorado Avalanche have the space, but haven’t been big spenders in recent years and Vanek may be out of their budget restraints.
Just comb through those 24 teams and look at how much maneuvering would have been required at this early juncture of the season — the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues have a COMBINED $6.1 million in cap space. The Boston Bruins have $2.8 million in room. The Pittsburgh Penguins have $3.8 million in room. The teams in 2013-14 who are likely to push all-in on a championship run at some point this season don’t have the space to add Vanek now. Those teams would have had more room near the deadline, but as of October 28, 2013, GM Darcy Regier was severely limited in trade partners, yet Snow was unable to exploit the Sabres’ weak bargaining position.
Or perhaps Snow wasn’t allowed to exploit it. The Islanders aren’t exactly known for their free-spending ways, but they have spent years doing everything in their power to scrape above the cap floor, going as far as trading for the retired Tim Thomas and his $5 million cap hit. If owner Charles Wang was only approving another $4 million in salary, it’s entirely possible Snow had his hands tied.
This deal isn’t so much a “going for it” deal for the Islanders as much as it’s a “we’re kind of going for it but we’re making this trade so early that if we fall out of it we can trade Vanek for picks and recoup our losses later” deal. And make no mistake – the Islanders are far from a lock for a playoff spot. They slipped in as the No. 8 seed in a 48-game season last year after missing the playoffs for five straight years and are eighth in the East as of today. It could turn for the worse in a hurry.
If the Islanders were truly in it to win it this season, they’d have dealt a first- and second-round pick and a mid-level prospect – an entirely fair deal for Vanek – and retained Moulson.
In 2013, Jarome Iginla was worth a first-round pick and two prospects. In 2008, Marian Hossa (and Pascal Dupuis) was worth Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and a first-round pick. In 2007, Ryan Smyth was worth Robert Nilsson, Ryan O’Marra and a first-round pick.
Trades are like snowflakes, but generally speaking it requires a first-round pick and a prospect or two to acquire a talented scorer on an expiring contract at the trade deadline. A three-time 30-goal scorer like Moulson was never required to land Iginla, Hossa or Smyth.
You’ve probably heard the rationale of, “If the Islanders are able to lock up Vanek long-term, it’s worth it.” Is it? Again, Vanek isn’t that big of an upgrade on Moulson, if at all. What does it matter if the Vanek signs a seven-year extension? Moulson would’ve signed the same extension for fewer dollars, and he’s been a sure thing his entire time on Long Island, and it wouldn’t have required dealing high draft picks to land him.
Does making the deal in the season’s first month change the dynamic enough to force a player like Moulson into the deal? Based on all the other factors, it seems like Regier either fleeced Snow or, at the very least, took advantage of a GM whose owner isn’t willing to spend an additional $7 million over the rest of the season.