The Montreal Canadiens are the winners of the Thomas Vanek sweepstakes. And they were already third in the Eastern Conference without him. At the beginning of the season, Hockey Prospectus projected the Habs to finish with 97 points, which would place them eighth among the 30 NHL teams in overall points. They are positioned to meet that forecast. At Wednesday’s trade deadline, Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge made a big acquisition, piecing together a last-second package to obtain sniper Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders.
The magnitude of the trade is threefold: The addition of Vanek allows the Canadiens to drop him into their top-six forwards while moving mega-talent Alex Galchenyuk into a less demanding role; they prevent any Eastern Conference competitor from employing him; and they got him at a modest price. This is a left winger whose offensive GVT mirrors Patrick Marleau; Vanek’s overall GVT ranks in the top fifty forNHL players. Win, win, win — right?
From an investment standpoint, this is a defined win. Even if Vanek is a rental for Montreal, fortifying the forward corps while only giving up a prospect and a 2014 conditional second-round pick is an action a team should take every time. Leading into the trade deadline, Vanek was expected to go for a first round pick, a B prospect, and a roster player.
For a team in need of scoring, Vanek gives the Habs a chance to raise their offensive ceiling. Among left wingers, he is seventh in the NHL in points per 60 minutes (minimum 40 games), per behindthenet.ca.
Vanek’s consistency in 5-on-5 production:
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The trade certainly changes the complexion of the Canadiens, and to understand how they perform going forward, it is required to understand what they have now.
They have the reigning Norris Trophy winner (P.K. Subban), a gold-medal winning goaltender (Carey Price), a star left winger who is on pace for 40 goals (Max Pacioretty), and the No. 3 overall pick from the 2012 NHL Draft (Galchenyuk).The oldest of this quartet is 26, so their high-end talent is young. Although the Canadiens have a poor Fenwick Close, possibly a result of several immobile defensemen, they are buoyed by Price and his sterling save percentage, and they have a cadre of forwards whose capability is underrated. The 30-year-old Vanek has been added to a young, potent core.
Like all teams, the Canadiens have their strengths and weaknesses, evident in their team statistics. Only two teams in the Eastern Conference have more regulation and overtime wins (ROW), and when the Habs get a lead, they clamp down. Montreal is top ten in the NHL in win percentage when scoring first and when leading after the first period.
But the Canadiens do not drive possession. Aside from the Brendan Gallagher-David Desharnais-Max Pacioretty line, Montreal watches the ice tilt towards the opposition. The inclusion of Vanek from a puck possession standpoint is negligible, because historically, his ability to move the puck north has been incidental. This season, Vanek is a -4.4 Relative Corsi per 60 minutes. Moreover, the Habs are small, their faceoff percentage is in the bottom half, and theyare outshot on average. On five-on-five, the Habs have been bad, ranking 23rd in the league, and their below-average goals per game does them no favor.
While he will not help their possession struggles, Vanek should help boost the Canadiens’ scoring. Throughout his career, he has been very good at putting the puck in the net — his career shooting percentage is just a hair under 15 percent. Also, like any great shooter, he gets a lot of rubber towards the net with 191 shots on goal this season.
The Canadiens’ lineup complements his skillset well because their undersized forward group is full of good, elusive skaters who can make the short pocket pass, push-the-pace intermediate pass, or the stretch, long pass. Vanek’s new linemates, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec, are skilled distributors, while Vanek is a mercenary who looks for the shooting lanes and fires.
Aside from Pacioretty, Montreal does not have a lot of forwards who have as formidable a shot as Vanek. This is partially why its power play is built around defensemen Subban and Andrei Markov; both are marksmen who can provide firepower from the point. If opponents are forced to press this defensive pair near the blue line, it opens up space below the circles.
And with Vanek on the roster, the dynamic changes for opponents because they now have equal concern down low and up high. Vanek has good hands, and when the puck is around the net he knows how to deposit it. He will not burn you with his speed, but he can get to his spots on the ice and produce a quality scoring chance. He is an offensive-centric player. Vanek joined the team as they were finishing up their Western road trip, and in two games he registered an average of 16:44 time on ice and recorded four shots.
There are murmurings that Montreal is a pit stop on Vanek’s pilgrimage to Minnesota, and there were games with the Islanders where Vanek looked disengaged. He was not so much inert as apathetic. His inconsistency was evident on a game-to-game basis, and with the margin of error thin in Montreal as the regular season winds down, that vice pops up as a big concern with the playoffs looming. However, Vanek is playing to get the biggest possible contract when he becomes a free agent this July, so if he is not motivated now, then you have to wonder whether a smart front office like Minnesota will clamber to dole out $7-8 million for him.
The postseason implications of Vanek joining Montreal are the most fascinating. The playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. Montreal will likely make the playoffs, and Vanek’s contribution with the raised stakes is what the Canadiens are counting on.
Vanek has played in 36 playoff games and his numbers are decent: 15 goals and five assists. In the Buffalo Sabres’ 2011 quarterfinals series against the Philadelphia Flyers, Vanek scored five goals in seven games. Also, that effort was on 25 percent shooting against Ilya Bryzgalov. Vanek’s numbers preceding that series had been more modest, and, likely, the sample size is small enough that it is hard to draw any conclusions. Still, the postseason is a combative, physical, hyper-intense slugfest, and back pressure is a requisite. Will Vanek play two-way hockey? Will he win the one-on-one battles? Will his inability to consistently generate his own offense manifest itself in an ugly way in the playoffs?
Vanek’s game shines when he has room to operate and when he is around the paint. But his game is more linear than people realize – he is a straight-line player. While Vanek has some creativity as a playmaker – you do not get 32 assists by accident — he is not a trigonometric, master-of-the-angles savant like Patrick Kane or Nicklas Backstrom.
What Vanek brings to Montreal is an easing of the scoring burden for Pacioretty and Subban. Vanek’s 21 goals so far this season immediately make him the Canadiens’ second-leading goal scorer. A dynamic winger allows for important spacing in the offensive zone and in transition because defenses will have to bend to try to restrict the shooter racing up the outside.
Montreal is a structured team that attacks in layers, and moves efficiently in transition. Vanek will be a boon to that. Montreal has good net drive on the rush, which will allow for the seam pass to Vanek for a one-timer. But Vanek’s undistinguished defensive play — too often he chases the puck carrier but does not disrupt him – presents a big question mark for when he is playing crunch-time minutes for Montreal in the playoffs. For now, he solidifies the Canadiens’ second scoring line. The rest is to be determined.
Sam Hitchcock writes extensively about the NHL and is the founder and writer of intelligenthockey.com. You can follow him on Twitter @IntelligHockey.