With the Red Wings heading to camp in a few weeks and currently without the space for a contract for RFA Andreas Athanasiou, of course we’re in a time of year where there’s one thing on everybody’s mind: When are the Wings going to sign Thomas Vanek? Yesterday’s Freep article is another update circling around the idea that the team and Vanek might like to try another go-round of last year’s situation where Vanek got a cheap show-me deal and then performed admirably enough to get traded at the deadline.
Here at WIIM, we’ve had plenty of discussion about the idea of bringing him back and want to share our point/counterpoint on the matter. On one side, J.J. will be carrying buckets for the logjam while on the other, Peter and Prashanth will bring the tag-team chainsaw to bear and say “no more!”
To clarify on the rules: we’re all working from the assumption that Ken Holland has enough magic left in the old bag of tricks to bring in both Vanek and Athanasiou in a way that works under the cap. Maybe it’s an aging expensive defenseman getting hurt in camp and maybe it’s the goaltending suddenly getting cheaper: we’re not going into the specifics in how it works because the focus of this discussion is whether or not it’s a good idea in the first place. First up, the nay-sayers:
The Red Wings Should Not Sign Thomas Vanek
(Peter and Prashanth)
While Thomas Vanek is a fun player to watch, bringing him back would hurt the team both in the short and long term, regardless of the contract he signs.
His Overall Contribution to the Team is Minimal
Thomas Vanek can make passes that most players wouldn’t think of trying. He is very fun to watch on the power play and when his team is allowed to set up in the zone. The problem is...well, pretty much everything else.
Vanek’s GAR components from last year, courtesy of Dawson Sprigings, show this starkly:
His even-strength defense component of -3.8 was the 4th worst in the entire NHL for forwards. Even though his EVD was particularly bad last year, he’s had a bad track record in that regard for a while as this chart illustrates.
So yes, Thomas Vanek can make some amazing plays, but his defense hurts the team nearly as much as his offense helps it, so his value to the team can be deceiving if you only focus on his offensive ability.
Sheltering Vanek Again Would Keep the Wings From Maximizing the use of Athanasiou
“I’m not so worried about Vanek’s defense - I’ll just shelter him so we can get the best of his offense while hiding his defense!” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened last season. Vanek was heavily sheltered last year, starting a whopping 22% of his 5-on-5 shifts in the offensive zone compared to just 6% in the defensive zone. This discrepancy was one of the largest in the NHL.
If the team re-signs Vanek, it would make sense for them to give him similar deployment. The problem with this is that Prashanth made an excellent case in an article for the Athletic that sheltering Andreas Athanasiou in a similar way would allow the young forward to maximize his contribution to the team.
As Prashanth writes in that article, Athanasiou’s game would likely benefit if he were used in a similar fashion to Vanek last season.
Last season, Thomas Vanek led the NHL in 5v5 offensive zone faceoff starts per 60 minutes. The heavy offensive usage allowed Vanek to post excellent offensive numbers with 15 goals and 38 points in 48 games with the Red Wings. However, Vanek had a horrendous season defensively, one of the reasons he was passed over in early free agent signings. Last year, Vanek ranked No. 386 out of 387 forwards in defensive expected plus minus. Despite being a poor defensive player, Blashill found a way to take advantage of Vanek’s unique skillset and he would be wise to utilize Athanasiou in the same fashion
Athanasiou’s defense hurt the team last year (albeit far less than Vanek), so while he is hopefully improving that aspect of his game, utilizing him in a way similar to the way coach Jeff Blashill used Vanek would be a smart way to optimize his production while protecting him defensively.
Any Return at the Trade Deadline is Not Guaranteed
Many Red Wings fans were surprised at last year’s trade deadline that Thomas Vanek only brought Detroit back a 3rd round pick and AHL defenseman Dylan McIlrath. The word going around after the trade deadline was that teams were gun-shy about trading for Vanek because of his poor defense and how sheltered he was.
Thomas Vanek is still un-signed. That in combination with last year’s trade deadline, where there seemed to be much less of a market that Red Wings fans anticipated, suggests that Vanek does not have much value around the NHL. He was nearly a point per game player last year, and he is still looking for a contract.
Rumors have swirled around the league that Vanek does not have a good work ethic, which is keeping some teams from signing him. Since these are rumors, and a strong case can be made without them, we are ignoring that potential aspect for this article.
All of this makes signing Vanek a gamble that could potentially net zero return.
So the Wings would be taking on a player that would likely not add much value, for which we could easily get little to no return at the trade deadline, and who would also take a roster spot from younger players, which leads to our next point.
We Need to Get the Next Group of Players NHL Time ASAP
Work involving NHL aging curves has shown for years that the average NHL forward peaks at 24-25 years of age. That in combination with the value to the team that a player has on an ELC makes it important that teams get their NHL ready players into the NHL as soon as they can.
Hockey-Graphs contributor Evolving Wild has recently done work on an aging curve using Sprigings’ WAR/GAR. He found a similar aging curve to what we’ve seen since 2012 when Eric Tulsky published his work on aging curves. Here’s EW’s chart from his article.
The Red Wings have Tyler Bertuzzi (age 22) and Evgeny Svechnikov (age 20) ready to make the jump to the NHL. Svechnikov in particular, is one of the most NHL-ready prospects currently in the AHL. Signing Vanek would put another player ahead of them in the depth-chart and mean that one or both of them would spend time with the Griffins this season when he should be with the Red Wings. Additionally, we see that the drop-off is steep when a player hits Vanek’s age. There’s no guarantee you get the same player as last year (although passers like Vanek do retain their talents a bit longer than shooters). The bottom line is that it is not worth mortgaging the long-term on-ice product in hopes of marginally improving the short-term product.
Counterpoint: Signing Vanek Is a Good Hedge for the Wings
A cheap one-year deal doesn’t hurt and should be a good tool for both short and long-term development
Asset-Gathering Is the Name of the Game
The crux of the entire situation here is whether you would accept a conditional third-round pick in exchange for MAYBE keeping one of Tyler Bertuzzi or Evgeny Svechnikov in Grand Rapids for four months, because that’s what Thomas Vanek is right now. He was worth that pick last year at the deadline and honestly, scoring wingers on expiring deals that can fit under anybody’s cap isn’t something that goes out of style.
Sure, the return isn’t guaranteed; Vanek could end up a bust and could bring back nothing. We can probably assume we’re not pulling a first-rounder for him, but I don’t think a 2nd is insane and a 3rd is probably still pretty realistic. I mean, I love lil Bert and Svech, but those guys aren’t guarantees either.
The Red Wings right now are in a situation where they either can’t or won’t commit to a rebuild. Barring that though, making smart moves to gather future assets in a timeline where you’re still burning off bad deals and looking for the core of the future is good strategy. Bertuzzi and Svechnikov are potentially part of that brighter future, but the chances that they’re both future core members aren’t that high.
Vanek Knows the Role
What can’t be overlooked in this process of growing players is that Thomas Vanek knows and does exactly what Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha (not to mention Evgeny Svechnikov) still need to learn in the NHL. While there’s also Tatar and Nyquist to learn from in terms of how to be a top scoring winger, Vanek is more like Mantha in his draft position, size, and pure skillset. While he’s not likely to be able to teach Mantha much about defensive responsibility, there are things that Vanek knows about what to do on the ice that Jeff Blashill can’t teach young sizable wingers.
It’s not that Vanek has that old “good in the room” veteran reputation, but practicing and playing with a guy who truly “gets it” is a good asset to have for developing players. For as much as he could be “slowing down” Bertuzzi/Svech with his roster spot, the potential to accelerate players already in their prime years is quite the tradeoff.
Injuries Will Have a Say, as Will Bertuzzi and Svechnikov Themselves
Assuming the situation in which Detroit finds space for Vanek and Athanasiou, Luke Witkowski is the Red Wings’ 14th forward. In that group, Tomas Tatar and Luke Glendening are coming off surgery; Justin Abdelkader is rehabbing a knee he chose not to have surgery on; their heaviest-minute forward will be 37 years old; and Darren “oh shit I flew into something awkwardly again” Helm is in this mix.
The Red Wings are going to have injuries to deal with during the season, and the callup pool behind the two kids we’re talking about is thin. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to end up with those injuries bringing potential callups for guys like Dominic Turgeon, Axel Holmstrom, or Dylan Sadowy, but we’re also potentially looking at having guys like 30-year old Ben Street filling ice time during the injuries.
The other side of that coin is that while Svechnikov and Bertuzzi are promising, Svech is still slightly below the age curve and Bertuzzi’s ceiling as a scoring grinder should have them tearing at the reins for a spot on the team regardless of Vanek’s presence. While the Nyquist precedent leaves little faith in the Wings giving an earned shot to AHLers who have more-than-proven their worth, the fact is that neither of those kids is Nyquist at this point.
Final Thoughts for J.J.
In all honesty, I’m not enamored enough with the thought of Vanek that I think it’s crucial the Red Wings sign him. I don’t even want him at the exact same deal as last year because I think the hit is too high. However, if there’s a way to make it work with the cap, I think bringing Thomas Vanek back on a very friendly deal could end up helping the Wings in multiple ways.
Final Thoughts for Peter and Prashanth
Since this ended up being longer than expected, here’s a quote from Prashanth when we were discussing this topic that sums up the way both of us feel:
“The #1 problem with Ken Holland right now is he is willing to trade the long-term potential of the team for a perceived, and misguided small improvement in the short-term.”
Would bringing back Vanek on a cap-friendly deal be worth it?
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