MONTREAL – It has been rare in recent years for the Montreal Canadiens to make anyone say “wow” after an NHL trade deadline deal.
But that’s what happened when they acquired Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders on Wednesday.
“Wow, what great news for our team,” said coach Michel Therrien, whose club was in Anaheim to play the Ducks. “I look at that move as a sign of confidence from (general manager) Marc Bergevin to the players, for the work they’ve put in since the start of the season.
“It’s a really exciting addition. It’s important for us to continue doing what we’ve been doing all year now. Thomas Vanek is a prolific scorer who can play on the right side or the left. We all know what he can bring to a power play, too.”
In the six-foot-two 207-pound Vanek, considered the top “rental” player available and who can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Canadiens added an elite scorer to a lineup that was short on offensive punch.
He is to wear No. 20 in his first game as a Canadien on Thursday night in Phoenix. Therrien would not speculate on who his linemates will be, although it’s expected he’ll be on the wing with centre Tomas Pekanec.
The Canadiens sent Swedish prospect Sebastian Collberg and a conditional second round draft pick to the New York Islanders for Vanek and a conditional fifth rounder. The draft picks will only change hands if Montreal makes the playoffs.
“When you think of a hockey Mecca, Montreal is it,” Vanek said on a conference call. “I played many times for Buffalo in Montreal and it’s so electric. I’m super excited.”
The 30-year-old would not speculate on whether he would seek a new contract to stay in Montreal after this season.
“It’s been a tough year for me and my family,” said the married father of three who has been traded twice this season. “I knew there was a chance we’d move again. Now it’s over and I’m a Montreal Canadien and I can just focus on hockey and helping that team win a lot of games.”
The deal should boost Montreal’s chances of making a long playoff run in a year in which the NHL Eastern Conference is considered wide open for any team that gets hot at the right time.
Vanek said he likes what he’s seen of the Canadiens, especially with the Canadian Olympic team’s Carey Price in goal, who he said is on the same level as former Buffalo star goalie Ryan Miller.
Only cosmetic moves were expected by Montreal at the deadline, but they ended up making three deals in the final two days, plus their Feb. 3 acquisition of checking forward Dale Weise from the Vancouver Canucks for defenceman Raphael Diaz.
The Canadiens picked up 35-year-old depth defenceman Mike Weaver from the Florida Panthers on Tuesday for a 2015 fifth round pick.
And they had fans in anguish for a moment when they got goaltender Devan Dubnyk from Nashville for future considerations, but the team said fears that it meant that Price’s lower body injury was more serious than anticipated were unfounded.
Dubnyk was assigned to AHL Hamilton. Price skated briefly for a second day in a row on Wednesday morning and remains listed as day to day.
Vanek instantly became the Canadiens’ leading scorer with 53 points and their highest paid forward with a salary cap hit of US$7.142 million. He is in the final season of a $50-million, seven-year contract.
Vanek was picked fifth overall by Buffalo in 2003. He had his best season in 2006-07 with 43 goals and 84 points.
With his contract up at the end of that season, he signed an offer sheet with the Edmonton Oilers for $50 million over seven years, which the Sabres were forced to match.
This season, he was named a co-captain of the Sabres with Steve Ott, but only 13 games into the campaign, he was dealt to the Islanders for sniper Matt Moulson plus conditional first and second round picks.
He thrived on a line with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, picking up nearly a point per game.
But on Feb. 4, Vanek rejected a contract offer from New York (reportedly another seven years at $50 million) in order to test the free agent market. That—and Tavares’ season-ending injury at the Olympics—left the Islanders little choice but to trade him.
Islanders general manager Garth Snow liked the deal even if he felt teams dealing players weren’t getting as much in return this year as they have on past deadline days.
Collberg was drafted 33rd overall by Montreal in 2012. A quick forward, he has so far struggled to score with Frolunda in Sweden’s top league with three goals and six assists in 40 games.
“We’ve liked him for a few years,” said Snow. “We projected him as a potential first rounder. Great speed, great hands. He has the potential to be a top-six forward. There’s also a potential second rounder. It was a good day in that regard in trying circumstances.”
In 645 career NHL games with the Islanders and Sabres, Vanek has 271 goals and 270 assists.