Wild winger Thomas Vanek said Tuesday that, if the Isles didn’t choose to move the franchise to Brooklyn, he might have decided to stay with the team. But Islanders fans shouldn’t be upset with him for that. The way things have turned out, they should be happy for the relocation, and for Vanek’s choice.
In a new interview with NHL.com, Wild winger Thomas Vanek says the New York Islanders’ pending move to Brooklyn played a part in his decision to leave that franchise as an unrestricted free agent and sign with Minnesota.
“It was close in February  and I thought about it long and hard,” Vanek said. “There was two factors; I made a choice that I really wanted to go to free agency. But after being here for a while I loved it here. The one thing I didn’t like was the move to Brooklyn. I think if the rink would have been built here, it should be here on the island. There was probably a good chance I still would be here.”
There are Islanders fans who no doubt read those words and began stretching their hate muscles in preparation for booing Vanek at Nassau Coliseum when the Wild come to visit. But given the way things have turned out, that’s the wrong approach. Isles fans should be thankful the team moved to Brooklyn, because if Vanek had stuck around and accepted the reported seven-year, $49-million contract offer GM Garth Snow put before him last season (before dealing the then-30-year-old to Montreal last March), the organization would have come to rue the decision.
Vanek hasn’t been terrible for the Wild this season (19 goals and 49 points in 72 games) and his point total would rank him second on the Isles at the moment. However, he would’ve been earning $1.5 million more per year than Islanders superstar John Tavares (who currently has 73 points in as many games). It wouldn’t have mattered how well Vanek played after signing an extension with the Isles – he wouldn’t have been better than Tavares, and there’s something that would’ve been fundamentally wrong with those financial optics.
Now, Vanek did put up offense at a nearly point-per-game pace (17 goals and 44 points) in his 47 games as an Islander, but a contract that took him through his early thirties into his mid-thirties would almost assuredly have seen a steady drop in that pace. Moreover, Snow’s reported offer would’ve been an overpayment in both dollars and term, based on the three-year, $19.5-million deal he signed with the Wild in the off-season. It’s no secret the Islanders aren’t one of the league’s highest-spending teams, and clearly, the organization has not struggled mightily without him this year.
The Vanek/Isles saga provides an important lesson for hockey fans in markets where free agency looms for a big-name veteran player: what might seem like the most important thing in the world today – namely, getting a top talent signed to a contract extension – may turn out to be a blessing in disguise as soon as one season later.
This is not to say teams should always allow valuable assets to leave. In some instances, it might be necessary to retain an aging player whose best days likely are behind him. But not in the case of the Islanders. If Vanek had remained with the team, would the Isles have had the ability to (a) trade for defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy and (b) sign forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nik Kulemin? Maybe. But maybe they only would’ve acquired two or three of those veterans, and maybe that wouldn’t have made for the solid mix and decent depth the team can boast of today.
If Vanek’s $7-million-per-year contract was on the books, would Snow face tougher decisions on restricted free agents Brock Nelson and Anders Lee this summer? Again, there’s a chance the answer there is “no”. But even with a change in ownership, it’s not expected the Isles will spend to the cap ceiling, and if Vanek were still with the team, perhaps the new contracts Lee and Nelson need to sign would’ve squeezed out another youngster from the team’s future. Seven million dollars each year is a big deal, and considering Lee and Nelson earn a combined $3.6 million this year, Snow should be able to accommodate both players with that money and still have cap space left over for other members of the squad.
Fear of the unknown is the worst type of fear, because it scares you away from the positive possibilities that are out there. Too often, teams splurge on players because they can’t imagine life with familiar faces playing in unfamiliar uniforms. And sometimes, teams need a lucky break to avoid falling into that trap.
For the Isles, that break was apparently leaving Long Island for Brooklyn. Had they stayed, Vanek may have stayed. And had he stayed, there’s no guarantee any of the good things that have happened for the organization this season would’ve happened at all.