HAMILTON, ON – Since the Montreal Canadiens made a big splash on trade deadline day in acquiring Thomas Vanek, much has been written either applauding or criticizing the move. The majority are praising Marc Bergevin for finally landing a big fish; showing willingness to pay a risky price – without really overpaying, mind you – to augment his current roster in preparation for a playoff run. The other side will tell you that Bergevin’s plan – if there indeed is such a plan – makes little sense, as he sacrificed not insignificant future assets for a temporary boost in a year where – barring a sequence of extreme good fortune – the Habs won’t be contending for Lord Stanley’s Mug.
The “pro” side will argue back that the cost to acquire Vanek was minimal. Certainly, compared to rental prices at most trade deadlines, buyers got off easy this year. The returns for Vanek, Marian Gaborik, and Ales Hemsky pale in comparison to what depth players like Douglas Murray and Paul Gaustad fetched in the past. And as much as it is hardly fair to write off a 20-year old 33rd overall pick from 2012 that has shown at times he can dominate peers of his own age, Sebastian Collberg‘s recent development hasn’t quite gone according to plan. The speedy, thin winger with a rocket of a shot has had trouble competing against larger competition in men’s leagues, unable to improve on his production year over year, while also battling through a couple of injuries and underwhelming to lofty expectations at this year’s World Junior Championships.
Bergevin wasn’t wrong when he suggested during Thursday night’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes that other recent draft picks made Collberg expendable. How many skilled wingers under six feet tall can an organization that already lacks size stand to develop? The 2013 draft alone yielded Artturi Lehkonen, Martin Reway, and Sven Andrighetto in that category, plus two-way Swede Jacob De La Rose, a forward with some size who outperformed Collberg at the WJCs. No doubt that at this point, Collberg still has potential to be the best of this group, but until he takes steps towards realizing it, potential remains just that. And not to mention we’ll now never know if the comments Magnus Nygren made about playing in Hamilton after leaving the Bulldogs to return to Sweden earlier this season might have impacted Collberg’s willingness to come to North America to play in the American Hockey League.
The “con” side isn’t done, however. They won’t argue against Thomas Vanek seeming like the exact kind of player the Canadiens are looking for. A pure scorer with size to compliment the likes of Max Pacioretty. But they’ll bring up that Vanek *seems* like a rental given his desire to test the free agency market and rumours that his heart belongs in Minnesota, even if there are questions as to whether or not the Wild could afford to bring him in financially. And if he isn’t tied to Minnesota, why not wait until July 1st to try to add him for more than a 20-game stint without sacrificing any future assets at all?
What neither side is truly mentioning is the value of 20 games, plus any playoff bonus time that may come thereafter. Even negating the value associated with an exclusive re-signing window stretching from now till June 30th, one could argue that giving up the second rounder and Collberg is actually LESS risky than waiting till free agency to take a run at the Austrian. How so? Let’s consider the facts with a couple of recent examples.
There is no question that if and when Vanek hits the open market, despite what Garth Snow may want you to believe, there will be a litany of offers for his services. These means he should be expected to sign a long-term deal for top dollar, with the associated risk being huge. What if he doesn’t fit in with his new team? What if he doesn’t mesh with their game plan? What if he can’t find chemistry with any linemates? What if his persona doesn’t work well with the rest of the dressing room? These are all questions that a team which wouldn’t have traded for him at the deadline truly won’t know until after putting pen to paper on perhaps a $50M commitment. You want to talk risk? Arguably, this risk far outweighs the approximately 25 per cen chance of a second rounder becoming an NHL player of any significance.
This is all speaking in generic terms, before we even get into the added complexities of the Montreal market. We’ve seen numerous times how the market isn’t for everyone; how not every player rises to the occasion of playing in a pressure-packed building and facing dozens of cameras and microphones every time they step off the ice. How being able to go grocery shopping without being constantly harassed for photographs and signatures is important to some. How living in a city with freezing cold winters and high tax rates is too much of a deterrent for some to even think about signing a deal, without having experienced the joy that comes with bringing 21,273 fans to their feet.
Montreal is known for running players out of town quickly. But even in other markets, teams that committed to the big deals last summer – deals signed without knowing whether the player in question would fit in – are having trouble keeping naysayers patient. Look at David Clarkson in Toronto. And Ryane Clowe in New Jersey. While neither have the successful track record of a Vanek, both were given lofty deals last summer and have failed to live up to early expectations.
The truth is, by year three of those contracts, both *may* look pretty good. The players will have had time to get adjusted to their new clubs, and the salary cap will have risen to make their hits more palatable. But would such players be afforded the same luxury of extended adaptation time in Montreal? It seems more likely that angry torch-bearing mobs would be forming on De La Gauchetière demanding they be exiled from the province.
Instead of taking this risk, the Canadiens get to experiment with Vanek over the next two months. They’ll have a very clear picture as to whether he’s worth the investment, or if they are better off placing bets on a Matt Moulson or other available free agent. If he does work well, and they are able to convince him to stay with the team, they’ll have an idea how to best utilize him to succeed in playing to the level of his new fortunes. The player himself will have had time to get comfortable with his new surroundings and teammates, ready to contribute right out of the gate rather than requiring an early season acclimatization.
Was the Vanek deal a good one for the Canadiens? Bergevin himself suggested giving it four years before making any determination. But as of today, there seems to be plenty of upside. Both for the current season’s playoff drive in a wide-open Eastern Conference, as well as for the information gained leading up to this year’s free agent frenzy.