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Buffalo Sabres

Traded LW Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for LW Matt Moulson, a 2014 first round pick, and a 2015 second round pick (October 27, 2013)

Seen by most every pundit as a lock to finish far out of the playoffs, Buffalo was expected to begin a youth revolution, with the team featuring over half dozen rookies on its opening night roster. Further expected to bolster the Sabres teams of the future were the returns from dealing away two of the most attractive 2014 UFAs, in goaltender Ryan Miller and sharpshooting left winger Thomas Vanek.

Miller had already been rumored as an early trade candidate, as the Edmonton Oilers were reportedly disappointed in the performance of incumbent netminder Devan Dubnyk. That talk was scuttled; it was revealed that the team from central Alberta was one of eight on Miller’s no-trade list.

On Sunday evening, news broke that the latter candidate, Vanek, was dealt to the Islanders for a fellow upcoming UFA left winger, Matt Moulson, as well as two high picks, including a first rounder next year. For a team that is no sure thing to make the postseason, that pick could be anywhere from number one overall to somewhere in the late teens.

However, let’s not bury the lead too deep here. This is an absolutely brilliant haul for beleaguered Buffalo GM Darcy Regier. VUKOTA’s preseason projections for the place-changing left wingers were very similar:

Name Age GP G A P OGVT DGVT SGVT GVT
Moulson 30 70.4 26.8 38.6 65.4 9.5 2.2 0.0 11.7
Vanek 29 64.4 27.8 34.8 62.5 9.2 1.2 0.1 10.4

If we prorate Vanek’s playing time to match that projected for Moulson, the Austrian would end up beating Moulson in scoring by four goals and just under three points, while still falling about one quarter of a GVT short. We can quibble on the peripherals of any projection system this early into the season, but there is no question that VUKOTA sees the two snipers as statistical peers. When we factor in some of the advanced stats, they suggest that Moulson is a better possession player than Vanek, and he has also had worse puck luck, with a PDO that has been below 1000 since 2009-10. There is reason to argue that Moulson may be the better bet for now.

Moulson will not have a center the caliber of John Tavares (a Hart Trophy finalist from last season) to play with in Buffalo, but the lesser depth around him should guarantee that he retains a spot on the first line at even strength, as well as the power play, alongside Cody Hodgson and a third wheel such as Steve Ott (more on him in a moment) or Tyler Ennis. As much as we may be inclined to attribute a large part of Moulson’s success with the Islanders to the good fortune of playing with the wunderkind Tavares, other former recent Tavares linemates Brad Boyes and P.A. Parenteau have maintained above-average scoring production after leaving Long Island. Moulson tried to put those concerns to rest with a stellar debut for the Sabres, scoring twice against the Dallas Stars (alas, the Sabres lost again), but the skeptics will remain until he can keep it up for at least a few months.

Of course, this trade has far larger ramifications than the rest-of-season production of the first line left winger in Buffalo, whether he be from Vienna or North York. The Buffalo Sabres organization will benefit from this deal in a few other ways:

1. Vanek, earning $6.4 million in the last year of his contract ($7.1 million cap hit), will cost approximately $2.3 (prorated) million more in salary dollars to pay than Moulson, earning $3.9 million in his last year ($3.1 million cap hit). Cash is good.

2. The 2014 first round pick could very easily be a lottery pick. VUKOTA sees the Islanders finishing 22nd leaguewide. That would be good for the ninth overall pick and a few balls in the first overall choice sweepstakes.

3. The Sabres still have plenty more trade chips among their upcoming UFAs, including the aforementioned Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and…Matt Moulson. If Moulson can score at close to his career rate of 14.0%, expect him to net a package including another first round pick, or young player equivalent, closer to the trade deadline.

New York Islanders

Traded LW Matt Moulson, their 2014 first round pick, and their 2015 second round pick to the Buffalo Sabres for LW Thomas Vanek (October 27, 2013)

If you read the above section first, or if you listened to Timo Seppa and Matthew Coller’s emergency mini-podcast, you already know why many of us are bewildered by the deal swung by GM Garth Snow. No need to rehash that all again. Instead, we will take a different approach and look for good, if perhaps less plausible, reasons why this deal might make sense for the Islanders:

1. A report by Katie Strang at ESPN.com made note of the fact that the Isles and Vanek (and his representatives) have had little in the way of extension talks prior to the trade. It could be that, in spite of the great chemistry displayed between John Tavares and Matt Moulson for the past four-plus seasons, the Isles braintrust felt that Moulson was a product of Tavares, and that handcuffing the two of them together may, in fact, have been preventing Tavares from growing as a player to his true capabilities. Even though Moulson’s career shooting percentage of 14.0% places him 18th among active players, Vanek ranks fifth, at 15.1%, behind only Teemu Selanne, Brenden Morrow, Steven Stamkos, and Alex Tanguay. Vanek’s most frequent linemate over that same four-year timespan has been Jason Pominville, a nice player who has had some standout seasons, but Vanek has never played with a creator the likes of Tavares. There may be some reasonable belief that Vanek could actually score with even greater frequency next to an elite center. Further, if that partnership can bear fruit, it may make Vanek predisposed to re-sign with the Islanders long term, and be one of the franchise’s pre-eminent players when they make their anticipated move to Brooklyn for the 2015-16 season.

2. If the Islanders believe (and they do) that Thomas Vanek makes them a better team than the one that had Matt Moulson on the first line left wing, they may also believe that Vanek is more likely to remain successful if moved away from the Tavares line, which would allow the team to better spread out their scoring. Maybe another former phenom like Pierre-Marc Bouchard can join the first line, while Vanek can add better scoring depth playing with Frans Nielsen and Michael Grabner. Speaking of whom…

3. Garth Snow may have believed that the price tag for Vanek would only go up as the season progressed as the cost in cap dollars goes down. Even after adding in the $2+ million difference between Vanek’s contract and Moulson’s, the Islanders have the fourth-lowest cap hit in the league, ahead of only the surprisingly good Colorado Avalanche, and the rebuilding Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers. Of the other teams who could best spare that kind of coin, only the Avalanche and the Ottawa Senators are currently in a winning position, and the Senators famously started the season with the talented Mika Zibanejad in the AHL to save some cash. Around the trade deadline, with Vanek only costing an extra $1-2 million towards the cap, many more teams would be able to join the running for his temporary services. By striking now, the Islanders pre-empted the competition.

4. The Islanders want to corner the market on Austrians. There have only been six Austrian born players to appear in the NHL. Of the six, three are currently active. Two, Vanek and Grabner, are now listed as left wingers on the depth chart of the New York Islanders. The third active Austrian, Michael Raffl, recently signed as a free agent with Philadelphia. The Central Scouting Services did not rank a single Austrian national among their preseason “Futures List” for the 2014 NHL Entry Draft; if this is a market inefficiency, it will likely remain one for some time yet. But who knows, maybe the Isles also believe that the presence of Grabner will help entice Vanek to re-sign.

If the Islanders enter into contract negotiations with Vanek on an extension, we can change the calculus on this deal a bit. I would be willing to overlook the inclusion of the second round pick in 2015 for that reason alone. If they sign him, that would excuse the inclusion of the first rounder next year, provided the Islanders do not “earn” a top-10 pick. Considering that the trade does not address the team’s biggest weaknesses (the blueline and goaltending), making the playoffs is by no means a gimme, despite the relative weakness of the Metropolitan Division in the early goings. If none of the above were true, not only would the Islanders have thrown away two good future assets (assets that could have been utilized in shoring up those aforementioned weaknesses), but as stated above, there is no guarantee that the deal even makes them better this year, and they will be a few million dollars poorer because of it.

Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.

Wagman

Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.

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