Wednesday December 16th, 2015

At 31, left winger Thomas Vanek has become a difficult scorer to handicap. He’s produced two 40-goal seasons during his NHL career and even managed to pot 27 through 78 games in a tumultuous 2013-14 that saw him dress for three different teams (Sabres, Islanders, and Canadiens). His 10.9% shooting percentage that season was the lowest of his career but he still managed to extend his streak of 20-or-more goal campaigns to 10, dating back to his rookie season of 2005-06. Last season, his first with the Minnesota Wild, he got off to a slow start and scored only 21, his lowest total in a full, non-lockout schedule.

Now, however, it appears that Vanek has found his groove again: With 11 goals through 29 games, he’s on pace to have his first 30-goal slate in five years. His numbers (11-12-23) were boosted by his four-point outing on Tuesday night against Vancouver as he netted a goal and added three helpers in a 6–2 romp. He had previously been held off the score sheet for six games.

Scorers going hot and cold, especially aging ones like Vanek, are hardly uncommon. Streaky by nature, he had put up six points in the six games before his drought began, so he could be on the verge of another production blitz. And it’s well due.

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According to General Fanager, Vanek is being paid $6.5 million by the Wild this season. He earned $5.5 million in 2014-15 according to the three-year, $19.5 million contract he signed as a free agent in the summer of 2014. If the Wild allowed him a mulligan in year one to adjust to coach Mike Yeo’s systems (although his conditioning was criticized early on), he has to produce this season. His cap hit puts him in the same range as Montreal’s Hart Trophy-winning goalie Carey Price, Ottawa’s defending Norris Trophy-winner Erik Karlsson and two-time NHL Second Team All-Star Alex Pietrangelo of the Blues.

The Wild’s top five earners this season—defenseman Ryan Suter and forwards Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Vanek and Jason Pominville—are all 30 or older. Minnesota needs every penny’s worth of production out of its current roster while it still has a shot at contending for the Stanley Cup. As of this writing, the Wild sit ninth in the NHL in goals-for per game and are tied with the Blackhawks for third place in the Central, far and away the NHL’s toughest division, with the Predatorsa mere two points behind them.

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Vanek has bounced among linemates often this season with noticeably differing results. According to Emmanuel Perry’s impressive new line combos site (which utilizes 5-on-5 data from War-on-Ice.com), Vanek has spent most of his time skating with Justin Fontaine and Charlie Coyle (126.22 minutes), and their unit has scored six times. But of the six lines that Vanek has now been on, that one is responsible for the lowest total of scoring chances per 60 minutes (19.49). What’s more, it isn’t driving possession, either, and also ranks as the worst of the six that Vanek has played on, with a Corsi For/60 of 44.21%.

If you’re a believer that underlying numbers are indicators of more consistent future results, then the line that Vanek has spent the second-most time on is worth considering as his regular place. Playing with Mikael Granlund and Jason Pominville, he has been much more valuable: His scoring chances per 60 minutes are higher and the line is more responsible possession-wise with a Corsi For of 50.76%.

And hey, it’s scored just as many goals as the Vanek-Coyle-Fontaine unit.

One of Yeo’s stated goals is to get more out of Vanek. Putting him on a line with Koivu and Jason Zucker worked well against Vancouver on Tuesday.Vanek and Koivu each had a four-point night and Vanek helped Zucker snap a 10-game pointless slump with a first-period assist.

“He’s a world-class passer and playmaker and a very offensive guy,” Zucker told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He’s very, very good at that. Hopefully with my speed I can help get open in some areas and hopefully some of his passes can spring me a little bit.”

How long the Koivu-Zucker experiment continues remains to be seen, but given the right linemates, Vanek is still capable of producing at a rate that will help the Wild make it out of the Central Division next spring.

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