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Updated: June 27th, 2014 4:44pm
Zulgad: Vanek would be nice addition but price will have to be right

Zulgad: Vanek would be nice addition but price will have to be right

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

It has been a long-held assumption that Thomas Vanek will sign with the Wild shortly after NHL free agency opens on July 1.

Vanek's desire to return to Minnesota is no secret. He played for the Gophers and his wife, Ashley, is from Stillwater. The couple, along with their three sons, lives in that town during the offseason.

On the surface, it seems like a perfect fit for the Wild. The team is in need of a goal scorer and the winger has never scored fewer than 20 goals in a season since entering the NHL in 2005-06 with the Buffalo Sabres.

The only questions regarding Vanek's expected return to Minnesota have been how long of contract is he going to want and what will be the asking price?

He reportedly turned down a $49 million, seven-year offer from the New York Islanders - the team that acquired him from the Sabres early last season and then shipped him to Montreal - and before that had declined an even richer offer from Buffalo.

But it's appearing more and more as if the Wild might be in the driver's seat when it comes to dictating the terms of Vanek's contract in what should be a take it or leave it situation.

The upside to signing Vanek is obvious.

He would give the Wild another top six forward and could be counted on to provide a guy who could bury the puck in the back of the net. The downside is that he will turn 31 years old in January and is coming off a postseason appearance with Montreal in which he was extremely inconsistent.

In 17 playoff games, Vanek had five goals, five assists and was a minus-4. He had two points in his last seven playoff games and played only 12 minutes, 13 seconds in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers.

Habs legend Guy Lafleur, speaking with La Presse, took a shot at Vanek and teammate Max Pacioretty saying, "Guys like Vanek and Pacioretty, you can't keep them on your team. They can stay home if they are not willing to pay the price. Your team is never going to win with players like them who disappear when they face adversity."

Vanek's lack of production is disturbing because it came during a time where he should have had the motivation of playing for a new contract. But general manager Chuck Fletcher also can use Vanek's performance to the Wild's advantage.

The smart play, and one the Star Tribune reports is Fletcher's plan, will be to offer Vanek a short-term contract. If Vanek really wants to play in Minnesota, then he can prove it by agreeing to Fletcher's terms. Let's say two years at $5.5 million per season, or something along those lines.

This is smart on many levels and is well worth taking the risk that Vanek opts to sign elsewhere. Here are three reasons:

1) If Vanek does accept, his willingness to take less in Minnesota could mean the Wild also will be able to dip into the free-agent market next month to sign defenseman Matt Niskanen, who is coming off an outstanding season in Pittsburgh. There are reports that Fletcher has made contact with the agents for Niskanen and Vanek, among others, under a rule that enables teams to hold discussions with pending free agents six days before they can sign.

2) The Wild has salary-cap room to work with, but Fletcher is going to want to make sure there is room down the road to retain the young players who are expected to be a key part of this team for years to come.

This includes forwards Nino Niederreiter, who will be a restricted free agent on July 1, as well as Charlie Coyle, Mikael Granlund and Erik Haula, who are due to hit the restricted market next offseason. Defenseman Jonas Brodin also is a year away from being a restricted free agent.

Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Mikko Koivu and Jason Pominville aren't coming off the books anytime soon, so not adding Vanek to that long-term mix would be a financial help and likely very wise.

3) Finally, there is the cautionary tale of Dany Heatley to use as an example for anyone who thinks "once a goal-scorer, always a goal-scorer." Heatley, who will be a free agent in a few days, is only 33 years old but the one-time 50-goal scorer dipped to 12 goals in 76 games in his third (and almost certainly) final season with the Wild in 2013-14. Heatley is still a hard worker but the skill level is no longer there.

This isn't to say Vanek is destined to see his numbers fall off the table in 2014-15, but if his production does start to decline in the next few years you don't want to be committed to paying him for the long term. Not when this roster has so many good young players who are going to be in for substantial pay days sooner rather than later.  

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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