Thomas Vanek

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NHL teams seeking free agent bargains should shop for ‘antiques’

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With Jake Gardiner needing a contract, RFAs like Mitch Marner not yet signed, and at least a vague possibility of Rasmus Ristolainen-type players potentially being traded, there are still plenty of things to watch for this summer. It just so happens that, beyond Gardiner and very few others, the UFA market looks about as well-stocked as the bread aisle right before a big storm.

Interestingly, some of the best items in the bargain bins are those dented cans nearing their expiration dates.

During July 1, you generally want to avoid messing with Father Time. Yet, as the dog days of summer go along, there’s actually some logic to considering potentially cheap players with long resumes.

Interestingly, one July 1 signing is an example of the sort of bargain I’d pursue between today and when PTOs start to flow close to training camps in September. The Toronto Maple Leafs signed veteran Jason Spezza on the first day of the frenzy, convincing the 36-year-old to go from $7.5 million in AAV in 2018-19 to $700K in 2019-20.

Spezza might not seem like the sexiest choice in his current form, but that’s almost the point. Now that he’s no longer making superstar money, his positives can shine most brightly, and I’d expect him to be a nice bargain for Toronto.

While Spezza might be the best of the types of bets I’d consider making if I were running a team, there are still some intriguing veterans to consider. To make things clear, here are a few key qualifiers before we roll into some names: this list assumes that the contracts would be short, the dollars would be low, and the players would understand that they might have to swallow some pride with a smaller role than in the past.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The lower level of commitment is important to remember. If a cheap, one-year deal doesn’t work out, it’s easier to walk away from a mistake. That’s certainly an easier pill to swallow than to stare at an awkward situation where, say, Milan Lucic is languishing on your roster at $6M, and stands to be an anchor for years.

With expectations sufficiently lowered and contextualized, let’s consider a few veterans.

Cream of the limited crop

Jason Pominville: Fittingly, the best comparison to Jason Spezza is another Jason with a right-handed shot, and some great memories related to the Senators. (In Pominville’s case, it was scoring against Ottawa, much to the confusion and dismay of Daniel Alfredsson.)

Like Spezza, Pominville’s sneaky-solid production was downplayed because of his bloated salary; in Pominville’s case, his 2018-19 cap hit was $5.6M. At a sub-$1M rate, Pominville could be an economical fit for a team that wants a veteran who can still bring some value to the table, and would probably be willing to move around the lineup to make things work.

Actually, I’d argue he’s probably more versatile than Spezza, and thus might fit into a wider array of situations.

Even with all of their improvements, I’d strongly consider bringing Pominville back at a huge discount if I were the Sabres (and if Pominville would accept it). It sure seemed like he was a decent passenger for Jack Eichel and Jeff Skinner at times in 2018-19, as The Athletic’s Jonathan Willis also pointed out (sub required):

Pominville was lucky last year to spend a significant chunk of time with Jack Eichel and/or Jeff Skinner, but he was an upgrade on Buffalo’s other right wing options on that line, which only really caught fire when he joined it (climbing from 3.1 to 5.3 goals per hour, and from a 52 percent to 55 percent shot share).

Why not bring back Pominville to occasionally be a cheap addition to the $19M combo of Eichel – Skinner, so you can then use the Marcus Johanssons and Jimmy Veseys as scorers on lower lines, getting them easier matchups? Just a thought.

Similar scenarios could make sense for other cap-strapped teams, too.

Justin Williams: Every indication is that Williams’ choices seem to boil down to retirement or returning to the Carolina Hurricanes.

But just to throw it out there: even during his age 37 season (Williams turns 38 in October), “Mr. Game 7” was more than a guy who shows up in clutch moments. Williams looked almost ridiculous from an advanced stats perspective last season, and brings the sort of intangibles that makes someone a “Storm Surge” innovator.

If I’m another team with some cap space, I’d at least try to wave some one-year money around to see if it might entice Williams to consider branching out. At minimum, Carolina should keep a spot warm for the winger.

Veteran specialists

Brian Boyle: The Predators continued their tradition of paying big premiums for huge depth centers in trading a second-rounder to rent Boyle this past season, so it’s clear that at last some teams see value in Boyle as a large defensive presence who can use that size to screen goalies during the occasional power play stint.

If Boyle costs you big assets, then meh. If he’s cheap and doesn’t command much term, then he could be appealing as the center of an all-defense third or fourth line. (At this stage, fourth would be preferable, but different teams have different situations.)

Thomas Vanek: On the absolute other end of the spectrum, you have Vanek, who would need to be sheltered with limited five-on-five minutes, but might give you some offense in a pinch.

Basically, I’d envision Vanek in the Sam Gagner role during Gagner’s brief time as a power-play specialist for the Columbus Blue Jackets. The 35-year-old managed 36 points in 64 games last season, and scored 24 goals and 56 in 80 games in 2017-18.

Sure, his all-around game makes him less of a net positive overall, but a savvy coach could yield decent returns while limiting risks.

Dented cans

  • Chad Johnson: The 33-year-old’s save percentage was below 90 for the past two seasons, so maybe he’s as done as the former Bengals receiver who shares his name. But if he’d be willing to take on a role as a third goalie – one who could easily be moved between the AHL and NHL – then he could provide some injury insulation. From 2012-13 to 2016-17, Johnson generated a solid .915 save percentage, matching Jonathan Quick and Ryan Miller during that span. Maybe he still has something to offer, even just marginally so?
  • Dan Girardi, Niklas Kronwall, Deryk Engelland: Here’s a theory: virtually all NHL coaches need that “toy.” Almost every coach has a player they love who … frankly, isn’t really worthy of those minutes and opportunities, yet the coach fawns over them nonetheless.

Consider Alain Vigneault when he searched for excuses to play Tanner Glass in New York, or Mike Babcock’s love of Roman Polak.

Personally, I’d try not to indulge such bad habits in a coach, yet what if the situation basically demands it?

If such affairs are unavoidable, maybe the key is to limit the damage by getting a cheaper option, one who hopefully wouldn’t get too much playing time, either. The hope would be that, if you give an old coach some old, beat-up player, they’d be more willing to also allow a younger player a longer leash.

Yeah … not the greatest situation, and I’d avoid the Girardis, but these GMs know their coaches better than anyone else.

***

Again, it’s crucial to realize that the above list is full of imperfect players, or ones who will only push you forward with baby steps, not giant leaps for hockey-kind. Even ones I like more (Pominville, Williams if he’d listen to offers from outside the Carolinas) aren’t going to save a GM’s job. And with that aforementioned group of veteran defensemen, some of these options would be less about improving and more about accepting lesser evils to appease the sometimes strange whims of NHL head coaches.

In some cases, veteran players might even sign PTOs, which would allow teams to see if they can find a spot in the lineup and chemistry with the team before even handing out a guaranteed contract.

This list isn’t necessarily comprehensive, either, so fire away if you have suggestions. In the case of this post, the veteran UFA options are 32 and older, if that helps.

MORE FREE AGENCY FUN:
Three signings that teams will regret
Five remaining UFAs who could bring value, the mostly young version
Looking at every team’s offseason in Power Rankings form
• The high-risk, high-reward contracts signed on July 1 frequently end in trades or buyouts.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Poll: Will Minnesota’s power play improve this season?

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The Wild’s power play was so bad last season that, at one point, Zach Parise had to ask fans to stop booing the club when they had the man advantage.

Minnesota’s power play was clicking at just 15.8 efficiency at the end of the regular season – good for 27th overall.

Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek finished second and third in points behind Parise, but both struggled in man advantage situations. Vanek scored just five of his 21 goals with the man advantage – his fewest in a season. Pominville scored three goals on the power play – his lowest full-season total since his rookie campaign (2005-06).

Speaking with Mackey and Judd on ESPN radio in Minnesota last week, Wild head coach Mike Yeo said his coaching staff has spent part of the offseason working on improving the team’s power play.

“We’ve spent a lot of time for sure, between (assistant coach) Andrew Brunette and myself, looking at different schemes (and) tactics that we can try to get the players a better chance to have success with,” Yeo said. “I think it’s got to be a personnel thing, just in terms of the combinations that we use and how we deploy them, probably a 1A, 1B. Making sure those two groups have competition against each other. I think in a lot of ways, for us, it’s a mentality (and) it’s a philosophy.”

According to Yeo, there’s one area of the power play that needs improvement on last season.

“We’re a skilled team, but we’re not the most skilled team,” said Yeo. “Most successful power plays around the league are still shooting power plays and the most successful power plays have the best net-front (presence). I think of all the areas, I think our net-front has probably been the worst part of our power play. That’s an area we have to improve.”

OK, time to vote:

Wild ’15-16 Outlook

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When looking at the Minnesota Wild, it’s easy to see their potential, but without making any major additions over the summer, are they in a position to get past the second round for the first time since 2003?

To a decent extent, Minnesota’s fate rests on Devan Dubnyk’s shoulders. This is a team that was in a free fall when he was acquired and his stellar play helped right the ship. Minnesota doesn’t necessarily need him to win the Vezina Trophy, but if he struggles mightily, as he did in 2013-2014, then Minnesota could be in serious trouble. Of course Darcy Kuemper and perhaps even Niklas Backstrom could step up to fill the void in that scenario, but Backstrom is 37 years old with a history of injuries while Kuemper is coming off of an erratic campaign.

Part of the reason why so much rides on Dubnyk though is because Minnesota’s offense hasn’t been anything to write home about. Which is a shame because in theory, Zach Parise, Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, and Mikko Koivu should make for a great core and when you throw in promising youngsters like Mikael Granlund, Nino Niederreiter, and Charlie Coyle, the potential is there for the Wild to be more than a middle of the road team when it comes to offensive production.

That’s what they were last season though, in part because Koivu regressed while Granlund, Niederreiter, and Coyle weren’t able to make meaningful offensive improvements compared to their 2013-14 campaigns. Perhaps that will change this season though and if it does, that would certainly take some of the pressure off of the Wild’s goaltending.

As far as their defense goes, Ryan Suter is expected to once again play in nearly half of every game. Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, and Jonas Brodin are projected to make major contributions too, but the X-factor is 21-year-old Matt Dumba as he should play a bigger role in his sophomore campaign after being limited to 15:00 minutes per contest last season.

The makings of a contender are there. It’s just a question of if everyone will click this time around.

Vanek resumes skating following hernia surgery

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Minnesota’s Thomas Vanek is feeling good after undergoing hernia surgery in June, according to the Star Tribune’s Michael Russo. The 31-year-old forward has resumed skating and is expected to be ready for training camp.

The injury was bothering Vanek for a lot of the second half of the 2014-15 campaign, according to Wild GM Chuck Fletcher. Despite that, Vanek was fairly consistent in the regular season in terms of his offensive production.

He had 21 goals and 52 points in 80 games in 2014-15, with 30 of his points coming in his final 45 contests. He also never had a scoring slump last more than four games. In the playoffs, he registered four assists in 10 contests.

That was the first season of Vanek’s three-year, $19.5 million contract with Minnesota.

Owner Pegula: Sabres have gone through ‘two of the most successful seasons we’ve ever had’

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Statistically speaking, the last two seasons have been among the worst in Buffalo’s history, but Sabres owner Terry Pegula sees great value in those painful years. In fact, he would list them as “two of the most successful seasons we’ve ever had,” per the Associated Press.

Obviously, those losing records allowed the Sabres to draft second overall in back-to-back years (having lost the draft lottery both times). They used those picks to select Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel, but general manager Tim Murray was also able to get plenty of other pieces for the rebuild over that span. He also acquired the likes of Evander Kane, Ryan O’Reilly, and Robin Lehner in trades while moving other players like Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek to get future assets, including first round picks.

A couple rough seasons in the service of a long-term goal can make sense, but the success of the Sabres’ rebuilding effort will be measured by how they do going forward. They don’t have to look any further than the Edmonton Oilers to know how hard it can be to transition from a rebuilding phase to a competitive one. Having a generational talent like Eichel on the roster certainly helps, but he and the Sabres have a lot to prove.

Given that, we can’t call the last two seasons successful for Buffalo in terms of on-ice accomplishments, we’ll have to let history judge if the off-ice moves are as beneficial as Sabres fans hope.

Related: Gionta: Sabres’ offseason ‘excites guys in the locker room’