Revisiting the Thomas Vanek Trades

As the years go on, we re-examine both good and bad trades. Hindsight is 20/20 and some trades turn out great and others not so much.

At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, the New York Islanders were coming off the heels of their first playoff berth in seven seasons. Young center John Tavares was a budding star in the NHL and the players around him were effective but suspect. They weren’t the names that were heard around the league. Players like Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner took a couple of seasons until they were recognized as scoring threats.

The Trade

So, in order to bring a more credible household name to the Islanders, former general manager Garth Snow took a big leap. On Oct. 29, 2013, Snow traded Moulson, a conditional first-round pick in 2014 and a second-round pick in 2015 to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Thomas Vanek.

General manager Garth Snow
CHICAGO, IL – JUNE 24: General manager Garth Snow of the New York Islanders talks on the phone during the 2017 NHL Draft at United Center on June 24, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Vanek was a more stable, reliable threat than Moulson was – at least in people’s heads, the recent stat sheets said otherwise. Vanek had played in 36 playoff games with the Sabres before the trade but hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2011. With the Islanders up-and-coming roster, Tavares would finally have some help and he wouldn’t have to do it all himself. At the time of the trade, Vanek was 29 and could be a leader for the young New York hockey club.

Related: Filip Forsberg Trade Revisited

In addition to the Islanders’ side of things, the Sabres felt it was necessary too. On the day of the trade, Buffalo had a dismal 2-10-1 start. Getting those two high picks was crucial for the Sabres rebuild and after moving Vanek, could start to move other unrestricted free agents (including Moulson).

The 2013-14 Season

Thomas Vanek

Both players from the trade had a similar 2014 season. They had good seasons with the team they got traded to but neither signed an extension and they both made the playoffs after they were traded again. So how did they get there?

Vanek had a solid season for the Islanders albeit a slow start. He was immediately placed on Tavares’ wing and played top power-play minutes. Once he and Tavares started clicking, they were one of the most consistent duos in the league.

Thomas Vanek Sabres
Thomas Vanek and the rest of the Sabres realize the situation they are in. (Jerome Davis/Icon SMI)

The derailment came when the Olympic break happened, and Tavares sustained a knee injury against Latvia that cut his season short. He had 66 points in 59 games and that put him on pace for 91 points, which at the time, would’ve been a career-high in points. He was also on track to hit 33 goals which would’ve been a career-high as well. It’s no surprise that these paces came alongside a more proven winger. Moulson was steady alongside Tavares and Kyle Okposo, but Vanek added another element to their game.

Without Tavares, the Islanders started to slip in the standings, and it was time to make a decision. Snow offered Vanek a seven-year, $50-million extension but Vanek declined the offer. In an interview with ESPN, Vanek said he didn’t rule out signing with the Islanders entirely, but he wanted to explore his options on July 1.

The Islanders ended up trading Vanek and a fifth-round pick to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a second-round pick in 2014 and forward-prospect Sebastian Collberg. Vanek went to the third round of the playoffs with the Canadiens collecting five goals and 10 points through 17 games. He wasn’t incredible but he definitely contributed in his short time with the Habs.

Matt Moulson

For some players, they really click well with one person and that was the case with Moulson. Prior to the trade, he had three consecutive 30-goal seasons. Moulson also already had six goals in 11 games with the Islanders, putting him on pace for 44 goals. However, after the trade, that type of production came to a halting stop.

Matt Moulson Islanders
Matt Moulson (Rich Kane/Icon SMI)

Moulson’s tenure with the Sabres was a disappointing one. The winger made a name for himself on the Islanders, but the nay-sayers believed his 30-goal production wouldn’t continue without Tavares. It turned out that was right. He didn’t have a tremendous season, but he didn’t have a bad one either. The Ontario native compiled 11 goals and 29 points in 44 games for Buffalo which eventually landed him in Minnesota after being traded again.

Moulson was traded along with Cody McCormick to Minnesota in exchange for two second-round picks (one in 2014 and one in 2016) and forward Torrey Mitchell. Moulson made the playoffs with the Wild and went to the second-round while only tallying one goal and three points.

The Sabres were one of the worst teams in the league in 2014 and finished with the second-overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft at the end of the season.

The Aftermath

The Islanders and Vanek

The Islanders found themselves with an injured Tavares, neither one of Moulson or Vanek and down a couple of high draft picks. The one good thing about the first-round pick going to Buffalo is that New York could choose to send the pick in either 2014 or 2015. They chose the latter and selected Michael Dal Colle at fifth overall in 2014.

Michael Dal Colle - islanders
Michael Dal Colle, New York Islanders, September 17, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Isles ended up moving the 2014 second-round pick they acquired when they traded Vanek to Montreal and their own 2014 second-round pick, to move up in the draft to 28th overall pick to select Joshua Ho-Sang. The other returning piece in that trade, Collberg, never played a game for New York.

Related: Islanders’ Ziggy Palffy – Underappreciated IIHF Hall of Famer

So Vanek got his wish and reached free agency on July 1, which ended up being his biggest mistake (do your best to keep up). He ended up signing a three-year deal with the Minnesota Wild on July 1, 2014, at $6.5 million per year, which was bought out in 2016. Then, the Austrian winger signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings for $2.6 million for the 2016-17 season.

Vanek was traded to the Florida Panthers and was still looking for a new home when he signed with the Vancouver Canucks for $2 million for the 2017-18 season. He was traded again, this time to Columbus. He signed one more one-year contract with Detroit for the 2018-19 season before retiring. Contract details are courtesy of CapFriendly.

Thomas Vanek - Red Wings
Thomas Vanek, Detroit Red Wings – Dec. 18, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

For those keeping track at home, that’s six different stints with five teams in four seasons (2015-16 to 2018-19). It is worth mentioning that none of those contracts exceeded Snow’s seven-year, $50-million offer. Vanek also turned down a second offer from the Isles when they offered him a three-year contract during free agency in 2014 for $21 million. (from ‘Thomas Vanek: Isles’ move to Brooklyn didn’t fit my family,’ Newsday, 03/24/2015). We’ll never know if Vanek leaving was the right decision for both parties. Maybe he would have helped Tavares and others even more in the later seasons and he had a long, fruitful career with the Islanders. We could always imagine.

Perhaps it was the lack of a first-round pick in 2015 that was an incentive to make Snow trade into the first round of the draft. It’s just speculation but it’s a fair argument. There were two first-round trades for the Islanders at the 2015 draft. One was sending Griffin Reinhart to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for the 15th overall pick and the 33rd pick in the draft. The 16th overall pick became Mathew Barzal. The Islanders then traded the 33rd pick and the 72nd pick for 28th overall to select Anthony Beauvillier.

Are Barzal and Beauvillier direct returns of either Vanek trade? No, but there may have been more urgency to make a trade (or two) at the 2015 NHL Entry Draft because the Islanders didn’t have a first-round pick. Both players are integral parts to the Islanders currently.

The Sabres and Moulson

As for Moulson, he returned to the Sabres on a five-year, $5-million contract and once again found himself in the middle of a rebuild. The Sabres weren’t competitive at the time of Moulson signing but it could’ve changed on a dime. They had a great set up with the second-overall pick in 2014 and eventually 2015 as well. Moulson played 253 games for the Sabres after signing the extension in 2014 and had a total of 94 points and 35 goals. It was an unfortunate disappearing act.

Matt Moulson, Buffalo Sabres
Matt Moulson (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Sabres ended up picking Sam Reinhart in 2014 and Jack Eichel in 2015 with their own picks. Those are two solid building blocks but neither has put the Sabres in a position to succeed just yet. The Islanders’ pick in 2015 that was sent to the Sabres was flipped to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for up-and-coming goaltender Robin Lehner and forward David Legwand. That pick (21st overall) was used for forward Colin White. Lehner played well behind a defensively challenged Sabres team. He had 42 wins in 133 games and had a .916 save percentage from 2015-16 to 2017-18.

So, who is the winner of the trade? No one, really. Neither team made the playoffs in 2014 and both wingers were traded again in the 2013-14 season. From the resulting moves though, there’s an argument for both. The Islanders because they ended up moving the second-round pick from Montreal and put themselves in a position to draft Ho-Sang.

Related: 2014 NHL Draft Top 10 – Where Are They Now?

He has an immense amount of offensive talent but still isn’t a consistent NHL player. Drafting Barzal and Beauvillier in the 2015 draft aren’t direct results of the Vanek trades, but perhaps those draft-day moves don’t happen if the Moulson-Vanek swap doesn’t happen. For the Sabres, they got a solid goaltender in Lehner but he didn’t lead them to the playoffs in any of the years he was in Buffalo.

What the trade really was, was the end of two solid careers because neither were the same. Vanek never matched his output after leaving the Islanders and Moulson fell off in Buffalo without a supporting cast.