There's a phrase Al Arbour used on a young Darcy Regier whenever Regier made assumptions or thought he knew more than he actually did. "'Not so fast, Kowalski,'" Regier said when we chatted this summer. "Al Arbour used to say it to me all the time."
Regier provided a not-so-fast-Kowalski moment Sunday evening.
The assumption around hockey was that he'd trade Thomas Vanek closer to the trade deadline, when playoff contenders would have more flexibility to squeeze Vanek's $7.1 million cap hit onto their team. And the most-rumored destination was the Minnesota Wild, a team that could use some additional scoring and a state in which Vanek is very familiar.
Not so fast, Kowalski.
The Islanders and Sabres pulled off the first blockbuster of the season, sending Vanek to Long Island for Matt Moulson, a first-round pick in 2014 and a second-rounder in 2014. And even Vanek, whose name has circulated in trade rumors more than any other forward, was surprised by it.
"I think he was shocked," Regier said during his post-trade news conference. "He was very professional. I thanked him, he was good. He was as good as he can be."
And if he was shocked, imagine Moulson's reaction. He's close friends with the Islanders franchise player, John Tavares, and he had six goals in 11 games for a team expected to make a playoff push this year. Yes, his contract is up after this season and there were no extension talks at the time of the deal, but he was surprised as well.
Each Monday, we look at the news of the weekend and spin it forward by addressing the next question created by those developments. Following this trade, there are plenty of them.
Next Question: Will the Islanders be able to convince Vanek to stay beyond this season?
GM Garth Snow sent an established player and two high draft picks to the Sabres for a player who may leave in a few months. When I spoke with Vanek's agent, Stephen Bartlett, last night, he said that there had been no contract talks as part of this deal. And right now, a contract extension is the furthest thing from Vanek's mind.
"Thomas is just excited to go play with a team that is on the upswing," Bartlett said. "I think any discussion and contract talk beyond this year will come much farther down the road."
The Islanders paid a high price for Vanek, and it becomes even higher if he leaves in the offseason, which leads you to believe the Islanders will push hard to re-sign him once things get settled.
They certainly have the cap space, and this is where very reasonable contract extensions previously negotiated by Snow come into play. There might not be three better contracts in hockey than John Tavares at $5.5 million per season (through 2017-18), Kyle Okposo at $2.8 million per season (through 2015-16) and Frans Nielsen ($2.75 million through 2015-16). Getting your young core players signed at a reasonable number allows rebuilding teams to pay the premium necessary to sign expensive free agents. And while the Islanders have one of the cheapest owners in the NHL, they have been aggressive on the free agent front in recent years without much luck. They made a big offer for Paul Martin. They offered a bunch of money to Christian Ehrhoff. Of course, neither panned out.
Chances are, they'll do the same with Vanek. The fact that Lubomir Visnovsky and Evgeni Nabokov showed up reluctantly and then re-signed with the Islanders is a good indication that playing for the Islanders is more attractive than outsiders want to believe. And the fact that they're moving to Brooklyn, which should provide state-of-the-art facilities and a new excitement level, also helps.
The biggest factor may be that they're a good young hockey team that should be at its best over the course of any contract extension Vanek might sign.
Is he willing to talk contract seriously during the season? We'll find out.
"Right now, the last thing he's thinking about is next year. He's thinking about the next two days," Bartlett said. "It's two teams in different places right now. He's excited to get a good supporting cast around him."
Next question: Did the Islanders trade for the right player?
The Islanders are at the perfect point in their development where they should be spending future assets on players who can help now. The last thing Islanders fans want to see is their GM be over-conservative and hoarding draft picks and prospects when the team could be on the cusp of developing into a legitimate playoff team.
Still, you wonder if this was the best asset management by Snow. Since joining the Islanders in 2009-10, Moulson has scored 118 goals in 304 games. In that same span, Vanek has scored 110 goals in 280 games. From a strictly goal-scoring point of view, there appears to be minimal upgrade.
There's no doubt that Vanek is the more skilled of the two players and Moulson has been the beneficiary of playing with Tavares, so the assumption is that Vanek's production will increase once he joins the Islanders. And perhaps it will.
But offensive production isn't the problem with the Islanders. They're averaging 3.09 goals per game, which puts them in the top 10 among NHL teams. The problem is that they've scored 35 goals this season and have allowed 36.
The Islanders have an even-strength save percentage of .904, which puts them at the bottom in the league along with the Panthers, Oilers, Rangers and Devils. That helps explain why a team that can score as much as New York is at 0.85 in 5-on-5 goals for/against ratio, No. 20 overall.
Ryan Miller might have been the more logical target in this trade, although predicting future output of a goalie in the short term on a new team is a risky proposition. The best use of assets would have been on a defenseman.
The problem is, that defenseman doesn't exist.
Vanek is a legitimate top-line talent. Right now, there's just not the equivalent defenseman available. The big-name potential UFA defensemen -- Dion Phaneuf, Dan Boyle, Brooks Orpik, Willie Mitchell -- all play for contending teams who aren't looking to trade defensemen for draft picks and prospects. Chances are, that's not changing much at the deadline. The guys available will likely be second-tier defensemen, and the Islanders still have the ability to trade for one of them. Of all the big-name assets who will be traded during this season, Vanek is likely to be the surest thing, and the Islanders grabbed him early.
Next question: How long until Moulson is traded again?
Regier said Moulson helps fill an area of need with the Sabres, with leadership abilities, power-play experience and someone who isn't afraid to play in the hard areas. But he's also an unrestricted free agent and the Sabres aren't in the business of letting guys walk for nothing at this point in their development.
"Our focus is on trying to acquire assets," Regier said.
When I spoke with Moulson's agent, Wade Arnott, last night, he said his client is headed to Buffalo with a positive attitude.
"He's not going there disgruntled," Arnott said. "We had a brief discussion that we'd be open-minded to listen to whatever Darcy had in mind."
The reality is that Moulson is 29 years old and has the ability to pick any city in the league in which he wants to play if he hits free agency this summer. There's little motivation to make Buffalo that choice at this stage in the Sabres' roster development. And if Regier can get another first-rounder for Moulson, he has to do it.
That's the positive Arnott took from this trade. It opens a world of possibilities for Moulson.
"The silver lining is that Matt is going to have an opportunity to choose where he plays the rest of his career or next several years," Arnott said. "I think it's a positive."