Vanek deal has potential for Kovalev-like impact

Thomas Vanek looks like the most impactful player acquired near the trade deadline by the Canadiens since Alex Kovalev in 2004, but we'll need some time to measure the move's true value, writes Radio-Canada's Guillaume Lefrancois.

High-scoring forward acquired in trade-deadline move

Thomas Vanek was acquired by Montreal from the Islanders in a deal made just ahead of the NHL's trade deadline. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

NHL trade deadlines are fun to follow, especially in the Twitter era. And this year’s was no exception.

It was around lunch time Wednesday when ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun broke the news that the Montreal Canadiens had acquired goalie Devan Dubnyk from Nashville. 

For more than a week, Montreal fans saw names like Thomas Vanek, Ryan Kesler, Jaromir Jagr and Ryan Callahan clog up the rumor mill. There was excitement from the fan base. But the sense of anticipation crashed quickly when people realized their team acquired an AHL-bound player.

Plus, that deal came less than 24 hours after another depth move — Montreal's getting veteran defenceman Mike Weaver from Florida for a draft pick.

“Todd Simpson, Michael Leighton, Brent Sopel, Davis Drewiske, Devan Dubnyk...", tweeted one fan, @jlizaire27, rattling off the names of some of Montreal's recent deadline-day acquisitions.

“Will the Habs ever get better at the trade deadline?????” he added.

Best pick-up since Kovalev

But general manager Marc Bergevin still had a trick up his sleeve. A couple of hours later, news broke that the Canadiens had acquired high-scoring forward Thomas Vanek from the Islanders.

Looking back at past trade deadlines (and the days leading up to them), Vanek is indisputably the most impactful player acquired by Montreal since Alex Kovalev in 2004. Ten years ago, then GM Bob Gainey sent the Rangers Josef Balej and a second-round pick — which became Bruce Graham, a 6-foot-6 giant who never made it to the NHL — for Kovalev.

For all the heat that Gainey received during his seven-year tenure, this trade is widely considered his greatest coup. He gave up two players who ended up totalling 18 NHL games, and managed to sign Kovalev to a new four-year contract, thus giving Montreal its most spectacular player since Le Démon Blond, Guy Lafleur.

How will Vanek compare?

For the comparison of these trades to stand, Bergevin will first have to re-up Vanek, which is anything but a done deal. The Austrian forward was, at best, non-committal on the possibility of staying in Montreal past the end of the season. To a journalist asking him about rumours he'd like to sign with Minnesota next July, when he can become an unrestricted free agent, Vanek was just as tight-lipped.

“I heard about it, but right now my focus is on helping the Montreal Canadiens until the end of the season,” Vanek said Wednesday night in a conference call.

This trade may end up being evaluated on what Montreal gave away. What helped make the Kovalev trade a success was the fact that Gainey basically surrendered nothing. But keep in mind that, back in 2004, Rangers GM Glen Sather got to choose between Balej and Tomas Plekanec in the deal. Had Sather chosen the latter, we’d all have a different opinion of that trade. (Gainey would unintentionally repay the favour in 2009 by giving up Ryan McDonagh in the deal to acquire the Rangers' Scott Gomez.)

The prospect the Habs sent to the Islanders for Vanek, 20-year-old Sebastian Collberg, is not exactly setting the Swedish Hockey League on fire, and he didn’t stick out at training camp last September, in part because a knee injury kept him out of action for the first few days. He has also suffered from concussions, and Montreal is loaded with small forwards. As for the second-round pick the Canadiens also gave up, the 2014 draft class is not seen as very deep.

For now, it looks like Bergevin made the right choice. But as was the case with the Kovalev trade, we’ll have a clearer picture a couple of years from now, when hindsight, as they say, will be 20/20.

This week’s numbers

1: Number of points centre Lars Eller has racked up in his last 21 games. Montreal’s best forward down the stretch last season, Eller had a hot start in October, but his production has slowed down since. He’s slated to become a restricted free agent at the end of the season.

1: Number of times the Canadiens have outshot their opponents in the last 13 games. And yet, they have gone 8-3-2 during that stretch.

10: Number of goals winger Max Pacioretty needs to get to 40, heading into Thursday's action. And he scored his third of the season on November 19. Talk about going on a tear.


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