Numbers Game: Vanek to Islanders for Moulson, picks

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Scott Cullen
10/28/2013 12:33:26 AM
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The Buffalo Sabres started their rebuilding project in earnest, dealing their best player to the New York Islanders for a first-line winger and two draft picks.

Numbers Game breaks down the deal sending Thomas Vanek to the Islanders for Matt Moulson and picks.

The Islanders Get: LW Thomas Vanek.

Vanek, 29, is one of the most prolific goal-scorers in the league, having tallied 229 goals since 2006-2007, ranking fifth in the league behind Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jarome Iginla and Dany Heatley over that span. Given the age and circumstances around the others in that group, Ovechkin would be the only one of those four that holds more current value as a goal-scorer.

This season, Vanek has four goals, nine points and a minus-5 rating in 13 games, and the minus rating is relatively fitting to the lopsided puck possession stats when Vanek (or most of the Sabres) have been on the ice this season. Throughout his career, Vanek's puck possession numbers have been okay, but not outstanding, largely because the strength of his game is not carrying the puck and creating chances, it's more about his finishing ability and what he can do when he gets the puck deep in the offensive zone.

Even this season, with his most common linemates including Cody Hodgson, Steve Ott and Drew Stafford, Vanek is generating a career-high 3.85 shots per game, playing a career-high 18:37 per game, but he's scored on a career-low 8.0% of his shots, well below his career average of 15.1%, so if Vanek continues to get significant ice time with the Islanders and he can continue to generate shots at this rate, he could put up some big numbers by season's end.

Pro-rating his shots per game, combined with his career-shooting percentage in the 71 games the Islanders have remaining, would give Vanek 41 goals, in addition to the four he has already. Of course, Vanek may not score at his career rate or generate shots at the same rate that he has through 13 games with the Sabres this season, but if 45 goals is the upside based on those numbers, it's certainly reasonable to expect 30-35 goals.

In the last year of a contract that pays him nearly $7.143-million, Vanek will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. There has already been speculation that Vanek, who played collegiately at the University of Minnesota, wants to sign with the Minnesota Wild when that time comes.

But that's well in the future. Vanek might find out he likes it on the Island, playing with John Tavares and fellow University of Minnesota alum Kyle Okposo. For whatever it's worth, the Islanders also have another Austrian, Michael Grabner, on the roster.

The opportunity to produce for a more competitive team and play with a fellow countryman won't have as much sway as the contract that Vanek gets offered as a free agent and that is where the Islanders are in a tricky spot. If they decide that Vanek is as good as advertised and they want to commit to him long-term, they're going to be paying for whatever production he gives them after the age of 30, which means decline is going to be a major factor when it comes to a deal that is likely going to be in the neighbourhood of seven or eight years.

Worse, if Vanek is productive this year, there will probably be other teams lined up to offer that long-term contract, because teams are easily seduced by goal-scorers and Vanek can score goals.

While it's definitely worth being aware of those scenarios, they are situations to be dealt with in the future. By adding Vanek, the Islanders give themselves a better shot at this year's playoffs, perhaps feeling more aggressive in a weakened Metropolitan Division, and the chance to make a second straight playoff appearance would be progress for a franchise that hasn't made back-to-back playoff appearances since 2002-2003 and 2003-2004.

If it all goes wrong and the Islanders fall out of playoff contention, they could still flip Vanek before the trade deadline to mitigate their loss of assets.

The Sabres Get: LW Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in 2014 and second-round pick in 2015.

Moulson, who turns 30 November 1, is a three-time 30-goal scorer, and ranks 10th with 118 goals since the start of the 2009-2010 season.

The issue that pops up when evaluating Moulson is whether or not he can continue produce at a high level without John Tavares as his centre. Not surprisingly, Moulson fares better with Tavares than without, but it's not a massive difference, so it's fair to expect Moulson to be able to score if he plays alongside Cody Hodgson on the Sabres' top line and gets regular work on the first power play unit.

It's also worth noting that PA Parenteau had that same question lobbed in his direction when he left the Islanders as a free agent, but he's done just fine, scoring 50 points in 58 games with Colorado.

If the Sabres give Moulson the ice time that was going to Vanek, that ought to provide an opportunity to challenge for his fourth career 30-goal season. Moulson already has six goals, nine points and a plus-3 rating through 11 games this season, but he's scoring on a career-high 21.4% of his shots thus far, a number that is notably higher than his career shooting percentage (14.0%), so some regression ought to be expected.

For the Sabres' purposes, though, if they can cajole some goal scoring out of Moulson, that could leave open the possibility of dealing Moulson, who will be an unrestricted free agent, before the trade deadline (and possibly much sooner) and netting another first-round pick, perhaps with a prospect or another pick. Adding that potential return for Moulson, to the picks that the Sabres received for Vanek, brings a return that would have been difficult to acquire from a single team, so there is reason to be optimistic about the total haul of assets being acquired.

At the same time, this is a rebuilding job that is going to take some time because the Sabres, who are already the worst team in the league right now, are dealing away their best player. By the time those picks become productive NHLers, if they even become NHLers, Vanek and Moulson may be in the twilight of their careers.

If a first-round pick from the Islanders falls in the 15-20 range, there is a better than even chance that the pick will be an NHL player, though highly unlikely that the pick would yield a star player.

Add in a second-round pick that yields about a 30% chance of producing an NHL player and the Sabres ought to eventually have something to show for dealing Vanek, but that's small consolation to a team sitting at the bottom of the standings that just moved out their best scorer.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Thomas Vanek (Photo: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Alex Trautwig/Getty Images)
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