Thomas Vanek is currently competing in postseason hockey with the Montreal Canadiens. It’s the third team he’s played for in less than a year, as he was first traded from the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Islanders in October, and then from there to Montreal at the March deadline.
However, despite the fact that he’s on a team playing in the Eastern Conference Finals, some are beginning to wonder if Vanek is focused less on trying to win the Stanley Cup and more on where he’ll be playing for next year.
Rumors have been flying for quite some time now that the Minnesota Wild are willing to spend “whatever it takes” to bring Vanek back to the land of 1,000 lakes. He won a national championship playing for the University of Minnesota in 2003, and the Wild have long been seen as a big player once Vanek becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
However, Minnesota can’t make a play on Vanek until the end of the season. So, why would anyone assume this is an issue right now, in the thick of the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
Enter Monday night’s Game 2 between the Canadiens and the New York Rangers. Montreal lost 3-1, resulting in the team falling into a 2-0 hole to the Rangers as the series now shifts to Madison Square Garden. Vanek, who came into the series having scored four goals against the Boston Bruins and helping his club defeat their arch-rival, has been an absolute non-factor so far against New York. Not only did he not score in Game 2, he essentially played downright dreadful.
Vanek hardly looked emotionally invested, appearing very timid and not determined at all. He was also called for a blatant slashing penalty that negated a Canadiens power play. His play prompted Montreal beat writer Arpon Basu to accuse Vanek of being “afraid of the puck” at one point during the game. CBC analyst Don Cherry called out Vanek’s defense, the slashing penalty and then brought home his critique by saying, “This guy’s mind is in Minnesota.”
But this can’t really be the case…right? Would Vanek really sleepwalk through a conference finals series because he’s instead thinking about what number he’ll want to wear for the Wild next year?
Obviously we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that Minnesota is indeed a big-time player for Vanek’s services this summer. They have the aforementioned homecoming aspect in their favor. In addition to that, we know that Vanek turned down a big-money extension from Buffalo – the team which drafted him – as well as a big-money extension from the Islanders – a team he went on record as saying he’d love to stay with – during this season. While you could shake it off as turning down contracts from struggling teams – which it is – it also shows he’s not just going to take money from anybody.
At the same time, wouldn’t it make more sense for Vanek to continue playing his rear end off in order to ensure his next contract is as expensive as can be? Firstly, it would convince any interested GM that they’d need to pay top dollar for him. Secondly, oh I don’t know, it is the Stanley Cup we’re talking about.
Again, only Vanek knows what’s going on in his own mind. Despite the common thought bouncing around during his sub-par performance in Montreal’s Game 2 loss, putting stock in the idea that he’s merely going through the motions until he can sign with Minnesota is just assumption.
However, his current team needs him badly as they try to even the series. If he doesn’t get his act together, he not only damages Montreal’s chances for a Cup, he also risks losing potential money this summer.