The Buffalo Sabres do not have to trade Thomas Vanek this summer.
The 29-year-old will be a free agent after next season. Yes, there's a good chance he won't want to spend the final years of his prime “suffering” through a rebuild. Yes, there's a good chance he'll tell Sabres' management he'd like to be traded to a contender. And yes, if that's the case, the Sabres don't have much of a choice. They'll have to trade Vanek or he will simply sign with the highest bidder.
But they do not have to trade him this summer. They could wait until the deadline next year in attempts to jack up the price to a contender a la Iginla. Or they could try to convince him to make Buffalo his home for the rest of his career.
The selling points to get him to stay aren't that far fetched.
In the NHL, teams can turn things around pretty quickly. The Sabres have promising prospects such as Joel Armia and Zemgus Girgensons on the way. They have movable draft picks and young talented players with high trade value. They also have a new coach and two first round picks in 2013.
The Sabres have a fair amount of cap space as well. There is flexibility to sign free agents and to take on a star's contract in a trade.
Does that mean they'll be a Cup contender in 2014? No. But it isn't a stretch to say they could be a low playoff seed and back in contention in under three years. Sure, that depends on their general manager – of whom few fans trust at the moment – but the point is a quick turnaround is possible.
Of course, re-signing him won't come at a hometown discount. The former 40-goal scorer won't have another chance like this one to score a big-money deal.
So assuming it's possible to re-sign Vanek with the right sales pitch and right price, the question is: Should the Sabres attempt to sell Vanek on a long-term deal in Buffalo?
What could a long-term deal look like? Alexander Semin recently inked a 5-year, $35 million deal with Carolina. Semin is a fairly comparable player. Here are some other comparable players who might set the parameters for Vanek's next deal: (via Capgeek.com)
Patrick Marleau: 4 years, $6.9M cap hit
Zach Parise: 13 years, $7.5M
Rick Nash: 8 years, $7.8M
Brad Richards: 9 years, $6.7M
Vinny Lecavlier: 11 years, $7.7M
The salary cap is dropping next season, but with ever-growing NHL revenues, you can expect it to be right back up to around $70 million within a few years. It shouldn't have a huge effect on the way a team would approach a long-term deal for a former 40-goal scorer. It's reasonable to expect the Sabres would have to pay somewhere between 6 and 8 years with a cap hit between $7 and $8 million to keep Vanek.
Is he worth it?
Some would say no simply based on the fact that the Sabres haven't won much since he's been in the NHL. Some might suggest he's a worth keeping, but not at the price. But what do the facts say?
Vanek scored 41 points in 38 games in 2013 – his age 29 season. It was his highest points-per-game total since 2006-07, when he scored 84 points in 82 games (and was a crazy plus-47).
Offensively, he showed other signs of improvement. The Austrian winger had his best 5-on-5 Relative Corsi number (a puck possession statistic based on the team's number of shots at the goal when a player is on the ice compared to when they are off) since 2007-08 at plus-4.7. Vanek also posted his highest shots on goal per game of the last five years with 3.03 per contest.
Shots on Goal per Game
His Even-Strength goal and Power Play scoring rates (per 60 minutes of ice time) have been remarkably consistent. The reason his total points drifted at times was because the NHL went from near 12 penalties per game called to under seven this year.
So, with Vanek still in his prime, you know what you're getting in terms of offensive production – at least for the first couple years of the contract. Everyone is different, but you can typically expect an NHL player's prime to end between age 33 and 36. There are many examples of players who kept on trucking through age 35, but those are the outliers.
And with Vanek, health has been a concern. His willingness to take punishment in front of the net – especially on the power play – has forced him to miss a hand full of games over the past few seasons. Presumably, he's played many more while battling through injury.
That said, he's only 36 games since 2008-09 and has never had a catastrophic injury. If he missed an average of 7 games per year and continued at his scoring pace over the past six seasons, you could reasonably project around 63 points per season from 2013-14 to 2016-17. After that, it's harder to project because he might be in tip-top shape and continue at that pace or he might fall completely out of his prime.
That's part of the risk you take in signing Vanek to a long-term deal.
Now, the Sabres could, under a new coach, have him adjust his role. Maybe ask him to play along the edges rather than take punishment in front of the net to score. Vanek's top-level offensive skills would allow him to do so without seeing a big (if any) drop off in production.
See here where Vanek finds empty space between the circles and fires a tremendous shot past the goalie.
And here where he makes an beautiful pass from the halfwall to Cody Hodgson in front.
With a tweak in his role, it seems possible he could carry a 60-plus point per season rate into his mid-30s.
But there's more to be considered when asking whether the Sabres should attempt to re-sign Vanek to a long-term deal.
The fact of the matter is, Vanek isn't an all-around player. He's a one-dimensional scorer. He isn't a strong defensive player, he doesn't excel in puck possession, he doesn't kill penalties, hit or block shots.
Recently, Zach Parise received a long-term deal with a cap hit of $7.5M – which is similar to what Vanek is likely to receive if he stays in Buffalo. The difference between them, however, is that Parise is a far better all-around player.
This chart comparing the two shows Parise has been much better in terms of puck possession and has faced off with much harder competition than Vanek has while having a similar percentage of offensive zone starts. Parise regularly ranked as his team's top possession player, while Vanek averaged being the 7th best possession player on the Sabres and was a negative possession player in four of the last six seasons.
*Rel Corsi is puck possession, Rel QoC is Quality of Competition faced (via Behindthenet.ca)
|O-zone starts||Corsi Rel||Rel Corsi Rank||Rel QoC||Rel QoC Rank|
|Ozone||Corsi Rel||Rel Corsi Rank||Rel QoC||Rel QoC Rank|
In addition to a lack of two-way skills at 5-on-5, Vanek registered less than one minute of short-handed ice time per 60 this year. He also blocked fewer shots than 420 other NHL forwards. That's not a typo. Vanek had four shot blocks this season. Not that that's his game, but four might imply he isn't exactly clogging the lanes and laying out on the defensive end.
Take a look at this turnover and back check during a game against Winnipeg this year in which Vanek was on the ice for all four goals.
The bottom line on Thomas Vanek is that he's a tremendous offensive talent. He can score on long slap shots, tip ins, wristers, snap shots. He can score on the power play, he can create breakaways, he can set up his teammates with ridiculously good passes through traffic. Vanek can be expected to score 25 to 40 goals and add 25 to 40 more assists per season. There are very few players in the NHL who can do that. Only 28 players had more points this year.
In short, losing him does not make the Sabres better.
But for a $7 to $8 million cap hit and long-term deal, the Sabres would be better suited with either a younger scorer who can guarantee production for most or all of a contract or a better all-around player. The Sabres ranked dead last in the NHL in possession. At the same time, three of the top four teams in possession made the Conference Finals.
A one-dimensional scorer like Vanek is the type of player a team adds when they're just about ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. See: Carter, Jeff or Nash, Rick. The Sabres are desperately in need of a two-way center like Anze Kopitar or Patrice Bergeron. They should focus their money and trade efforts on getting a No. 1 center, then add a Vanek-like scorer when they're ready to compete for the Cup.