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In Praise of Thomas Vanek: A Fun and Good Hockey Player

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A fond farewell to Vanek, one of the few bright spots in a dim Red Wings season.

NHL: Buffalo Sabres at Detroit Red Wings Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Thomas Vanek was in rare territory for the Red Wings.

This franchise has made long history of signing veterans to short-term deals. Unlike past instances of fading stars returning home or attempting to win a Stanley Cup, Vanek was a veteran seeking reclamation. After a spate of (relatively) disappointing seasons with the Islanders, Canadiens and Wild, combined with legal troubles from gambling, he became a July 1 afterthought. This allowed Ken Holland to dole out a savvy one-year, $2.6 million deal.

I’m a fan of the Lee Stempniaks and P.A. Parenteaus; players who produce well within their roles for cheap, yet are continuously deemed expendable or fall as perfect trade bait. You’ll always get what you paid for one way or another.

Coming into this season I believed the Wings had an outside shot at making another wildcard appearance (due mostly to my unrealistic belief the goaltending would be superhuman). Adding Vanek on a low risk, high reward deal seemed to fit snugly into the frame of this season. Either Vanek becomes that power play specialist giving the bump needed down the stretch, or he becomes that player for another team with a generous return. I liked Vanek’s signing because in context it’s an anti-Ken Holland move, more so because it had a high chance of yielding positive returns.

Vanek was exactly as advertised; typically aloof in the defensive zone, floating through the neutral zone, brilliant in the offensive zone, finding soft spots in coverage, and using his hands to generate gorgeous scoring chances. He had offensive sights but seemed to pay little mind to anything else. Vanek has made his money through scoring goals, not blocking shots.

Few players on this Red Wings team have been worth the price of admission. We knew this was likely coming into this damned season. With that in mind, Vanek gave us all we could ask for watching a bad team. He was a wrecking ball and played like his aim was to have fun.

Unfortunately that’s been misconstrued as Vanek not wanting to win. He also garnered a surprisingly low return last time he was traded as a rental to Montreal (then, a 2nd round pick). This time, analysts squawking through over stretched deadline coverage said teams didn’t want to pay much for a one-dimensional player. He’s coming in at a 0.79 point-per-game clip with 5 power play goals, despite being on a team with a fundamentally broken power play system. If used properly he’ll purely produce offense. What else do you need out of him? You need to score to win games. Vanek fills that role with the bonus ability to drop your jaw while doing it.

It was a deadline where Steve Ott was held out against Vancouver because he drew a suitor quicker than Vanek. Ott’s new team, the Canadiens, also traded for Dwight King and Andreas Martinsen. Montreal’s brand new fourth line has a combined 14 goals this season, one less than Vanek. The Canadiens went this route despite struggling to score all season. There are still GMs out there who value a stroll down Aisle 2 at the hardware store over players like Vanek who just put pucks in the net. It’ll be their loss.

I believe Holland when he says a 3rd rounder and twice-waived defenseman Dylan McIlrath was the best offer he could get for Vanek. We all got suckered into idealistic fantasies selling at the deadline for the first time in decades. For most of us, this was the first time witnessing the Red Wings in this position. Our imaginations ran wild, unlike the imaginations of most NHL executives. That’s fair. The stigma cast on Vanek isn’t fair but still allowed teams to drive a hard bargain.

My hope is Panthers fans—who are already graced with Jagr, Luongo, Ekblad and Barkov—will simply accept Vanek as the hired gun he is. I did and for that I’ll always remember his short time in Detroit fondly.