When the Minnesota Wild signed Thomas Vanek two years ago to a three-year, $19.5 million dollar contract, it was a move that made no sense at all.
Vanek was a free-wheeling, creative forward who thrived in the offensive zone but was a liability anywhere else on the ice. Minnesota was a meat-and-potatoes team whose success was predicated on their ability to frustrate opponents with defense.
Except that Vanek signing with the Wild made perfect sense. Minnesota lacked the pure, easy offense that he could provide, while in theory, Mike Yeo’s Wild should’ve provided the defensive support to mitigate his shortcomings.
Now, almost two years after Vanek took a discount to sign in St. Paul, general manager Chuck Fletcher bought him out of the final year of his deal.
And while freeing up salary cap space was a motivating factor in that transaction, make no mistake: this just wasn’t working out.
Vanek put up 93 points with Minnesota in his two seasons, after scoring 109 in his two years prior to signing with Minnesota. That drop-off in production looks even more stark once you account for the fact that he played almost 40 fewer games in 2012-2014 than he did in 2014-2016.
The decline in and of itself wasn’t terrible. You have to expect some erosion in skills for any player once they’re over the age of 30. But when Vanek’s ability to carry his team started to go, he didn’t compensate for that by shoring up his deficiencies.
He also had a disconnect between what he wanted to do on offense and what the Wild needed him to do. Fletcher and Yeo came into this arrangement thinking that he would provide 25-30 goals yearly.
But when Vanek arrived, he felt his situation warranted him being more of a playmaker, and he stopped shooting. This was perhaps even more frustrating to the Wild brass.
While Vanek will get the bulk of the criticism as he leaves Minnesota to find another NHL gig, it’s important to note that the Wild haven’t been blameless throughout this situation.
Fletcher did well to mitigate the risk in taking on Vanek by getting him for low term, but it doesn’t feel like they were fully prepared to take the good with the bad with him. After all, over his two seasons in Minnesota, he was second on the team with 2.3 points per 60 in all situations.
Again, that’s down from where he was before signing with the Wild, but he still provided offense that the Wild sorely needed. While other organizations and other coaches seemed to make Vanek work, in spite of his shortcomings, Minnesota couldn’t solve that puzzle.
You could also make the argument that Vanek was completely justified in feeling that he should be more of a playmaker. In Buffalo, Jason Pominville was always able to find him in scoring areas. On Long Island, John Tavares was able to do the same. But in Minnesota? Not so much.
With the exception of Mikael Granlund, Vanek was really the only player on the team with exceptional creativity. In many cases, trying to set up his linemates was a reasonable decision to make. Minnesota miscalculated in thinking they could pair him with North-South players like Charlie Coyle, Jason Zucker, and Mikko Koivu without changing his approach.
It’s disappointing, because both Vanek and Minnesota are worse off than had they gone different directions.
Vanek left millions on the table to sign with the Wild, and is now hitting the market with greatly diminished value. Had Minnesota passed on him, they’d have had much greater flexibility over the last two summers.
Both will have something to prove next year. For Vanek, it’ll be that he was hindered by Minnesota’s philosophy and that he can still provide elite production in the right circumstance. For the Wild organization, they need to show that hiring Bruce Boudreau can fix their age-old issues with getting the most out of offensive-minded players.