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ST. PAUL… The Thomas Vanek era in a Minnesota Wild uniform has come to a conclusion as the club bought out his contract before the NHL Entry Draft last Friday. Vanek had one year left on a contract that carried a $6.5 mil salary cap hit. ($7.5 to the player) The salary cap relief will equate to $5mil for the upcoming season. In true dollars (to the player) the actual buyout cost to the team will be $5 mil. With the cap going up only slightly for next year to $73 mil, and with some future RFA signings, potential free agent pursuits and the like on the horizon, the team needed to free up some cap space and this move helps in that regard.
But does this mean we will see a vastly different, “new and improved” Wild roster for next season? To be honest and straightforward, to be a “realist” if you will, the sad answer to that question is no. This team will once again be in a dogfight to get into the playoffs, they won’t go far if they do make it in and once again they won’t be in any prime draft position. While there is some potential in the pipeline there is no one that can come in and change the immediate fortunes of this team. But more on that in a bit.
While the Vanek buyout was in all likelihood a team necessity I have been left feeling indifferent about it. Vanek had become a whipping boy of sorts for some Wild fans and while I understand it, I still don’t like it. Go on most Wild poster boards after games last season and the one before and he had become a frequent target for fan angst over the teams performance and his own. I get it, I mean I do. Yes, he is on the tail end of a splendid career and most certainly I have followed Vanek since his days in Minneapolis as a Golden Gopher. He was an absolute beast in the 2003 Frozen Four, helping the G’s win their last National Title.
But I didn’t just like him because he came from a team I have followed, this guy was a player and a half. I followed him in all of his years with the Buffalo Sabres, and let me tell you, for all of the goals he scored while there, this guy took a pounding. So much so that I worried when Wild GM Chuck Fletcher signed him to the 3 year $19.5 mil deal if it was a good decision or not. What did Thomas have left? Especially what could he bring to the Wild in a league that was getting both younger and faster? Vanek wasn’t getting younger or faster. Was former Coach Mike Yeo’s system a fit for him? At the end of the day what we found out was that his hands, shot and vision were still mostly there, his legs were not. Add in some injuries and it just didn’t work.
Man, I wanted it to work but reality can be a 25 mph hit in the corner sometimes. What can I say to his detractors? Not much. It is pro sports after all, it’s performance based and it is a business and that’s that. Vanek himself understands that and said as much. While the Wild thing didn’t work out as hoped, for the folks that loved to get on him, dig up some old Vanek highlights from his Gopher and Sabre days and just try to tell me that this guy didn’t have it going on. Just try. I will laugh at you while you do it. The constant, infinite thing in pro sports that is irrefutable is that nothing lasts forever. Nothing. Not the sixties and seventies Habs, not Mr. Hockey or The Rocket or even The Great One. Nothing. Given the circumstances and realities did you think for one moment that Thomas was going to be the first? Chuck tried and….
THE NHL ENTRY DRAFT WAS HELD last week and the Wild didn’t have many picks going in. The bad news is that they have not (yes, this is a broken record) picked up a player that can come in and make the Wild a better team right off of the hop. The good news is that they got a couple of players with some huge potential with at least one that I could see in the show within a couple of years. With their 1st Round pick (15th overall) the team selected Wisconsin Badger Forward Luke Kunin. (6’0”-195lbs) This player already possesses a professional shot and the kind of release that makes him dangerous when he uses it.
Kunin stated after his selection that he envisions himself back on campus in Madison for one more season before turning pro. He hails from the St, Louis area and had former Blues Keith Tkachuk and Al MacInnis as his amateur coaches. This pick could be big in the Wild future. The team then took Brandon Duhaime (LW- 6’0”-185lbs) with their 4th Round, 106th pick. I am 50/50 on this player making the big league at some point. He played at Tri City of the USHL this past season and they won their league Championship.
In the 7th Round with the 196th pick the club selected Dmitry Sokolov (D-6’1”-200lbs) who played for Sudbury of the OHL. He had 52 points in 68 games but battled injury problems. Some scouts believed he could be a potential top 15 pick prior to the season but then he fell as the injury problems plagued him. Some scouts believed he needed to do much more work on his conditioning as well. My take is that when this kid fills out and gets his man body he could become a significant professional player. Lets see how the Wild handle him.
Finally the team took Bradyn Chizen (D-6’6”-190lbs) in the 7th Round, 204th overall. All reports state that this young man is a project player and I’ll leave it at that. To summarize this week and draft, once again this club is stuck in that “not good enough to win a Cup-not bad enough to draft high” mode. And the frustrating thing to me as a fan is that I cannot see that changing anytime soon. The big roster isn’t there, the pipeline doesn’t offer much and the team mortgaged a few draft choices to get this creaky wagon this far. Yumpin’ Yiminee’ Ole! Uffda. Peace