Vanek for Moulson, and good old fashioned money puck

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As I’m sure you’ve heard, a couple of days ago the Islanders traded Matt Moulson, a 1st round pick this year, and a 2nd round pick next year for Thomas Vanek.

Everything about this trade is fascinating to me, from the assumptions made by the teams involved to the way the media is writing about it. I feel like this could be one of the most straightforward examples I’ve ever seen of one general manager exploiting the superficial perceptions of another to receive a higher trade return.

Let’s start with Moulson:

                                  GP    G    A  Pts 
NHL Totals                        334  126  109  235

Moulson has a career point-per-game average of 0.70 with three 30+ goal seasons, or a .37 goals-per-game. (He was on course for a fourth 30 goal season in the lockout shortened year.) His career Relative Corsi is a respectable 6.06, and that’s including his first two pretty terrible seasons in LA. If you look only at his Islanders years, his Relative Corsi is 7.1. He’s never been a negative possession player in his time on the island.

In other words, Moulson hasn’t just been good; he’s been consistently good. In Ottawa we talk about Bobby Ryan being a four-time 30 goal scorer as if that’s the new benchmark for superstars, and it will entitle him to $8MM+ when his new contract is due. Moulson, on the other hand, is making just over $3MM a year for the same kind of production. He provides some of the best value in the NHL.

Now Vanek:

                                   GP    G    A  Pts 
 NHL Totals                        598  254  243  497

First thing to mention is that Vanek has 3.2 more seasons of experience than Moulson. So, there is the seniority factor here. He sports a marginally higher 0.83 points-per-game average, and a marginally higher goals-per-game average of 0.42. His career Relative Corsi is 7.2, or almost exactly the same as Islanders Years Moulson.

In other words, the two players are so similar in production and possession as to almost be shadows of each other. Vanek, however, has had a couple of 40 goal seasons, and is paid about $7.2MM a year–or about two-and-a-half times what Moulson is making.

The key difference between the two players seems to be the perception of their potential. Shortly after the trade, I saw something on Puck Daddy to the effect of Vanek being the kind of player who is capable of “carrying a team on his back for weeks on end,” whatever that means. I’m not sure what the criteria is for team carrying, or why Moulson doesn’t meet those criteria, especially considering that Moulson has produced on an Islanders team that has consistently had one of the lowest payrolls in the league, while some of Vanek’s best years came when the Sabres were making the conference finals, racking up 100 point regular seasons, and when teammates Chris Drury and Daniel Briere were in their prime.

My point is that it’s not at all clear to me why Vanek is spoken about as if he’s an elite player, a star, a ‘special’ contributor, and Moulson is not. It’s certainly assumed that Vanek’s ceiling is higher than Moulson’s, and that other, mitigating factors have kept him from reaching that ceiling more consistently. In the right conditions–say, with a star centerman like John Tavares–he’ll flourish. (The same has been said about Rick Nash’s time in Columbus, though playing on a better Rangers team certainly hasn’t propelled Nash to stratospheric production.) Moulson, to put it diplomatically, is assumed to already be playing at his ceiling, or even outperforming his ‘natural state’ as a player.

This, maybe even more than this season’s Toronto Maple Leafs, who consistently get outshot and still win games, is a case study for advanced stats and the assumptions of general managers.

For both players we have a large enough sample size to theorize about what is reasonable to expect from them. Moulson, when given first line minutes and linemates like Tavares, can be a 30 goal scorer. That’s a proven commodity, and one, as we’ve seen in Ottawa, that teams will pay handsomely for. A player who can produce like that on a very cheap deal is the best of all worlds, the holy grail, the type of player you should constantly be seeking out in a cap- and fund-constrained league. And the Islanders just gave that guy away on the assumption that Vanek can return to 40+ goal form, or maybe even reach new heights. And I’m not sure how likely that is, considering his last 40 goal season was in 2008-2009.

And then there’s the draft picks. Next year’s 2nd rounder isn’t anything to get excited about. Assuming a 2nd round pick needs two to four years of development before you even know what you have, then whoever the Islanders draft there isn’t going to fit into their plans to contend in the next few years. The 1st rounder, on the other hand, represents significant risk. They’re banking on it being a mid- to late-round pick, in which case the player selected may still be a few years out. But those players are valuable assets nonetheless, and you can ask Chicago how valuable having a pipeline is when you want to extend your window as a contender.

I agree with the principle that the Islanders have plenty of prospects, and the time to upgrade is now. But as I’ve written on this blog about Ottawa time and again, you only really get one or two shots at a big upgrade when you’re at the apex of your rebuild. It takes a lot in terms of picks and prospects to get an established NHLer, and the Islanders just used some of those resources on a player who is only marginally better than the roster player they gave up. I’m not even really getting into the fact that the Islanders don’t need offsense, they need goaltending and defense.

If absolutely everything goes right for the Islanders–Vanek gels with Tavares, works in their system, and escalates his output–it’s not really reasonable to expect much more than Moulson’s ‘natural state’ output of 30 goals. Let’s say he’s able to break that magical 40 goal threshold that separates the superstars and special players like Vanek from the rest of the pack. Vanek has about $6MM left outstanding on his salary to Moulson’s $2.6MM. Will those extra ten goals have been worth $3.4MM, a first rounder which could land anywhere, and a 2nd rounder?

This trade really is dumbfounding. Even if you factor in intangibles which we’re not privy to–Vanek’s extra NHL experience, the fact that he was (for a very, very short time) a co-captain (with Steve Ott, fer Chrissake), and whatever other concerns the Islanders might have had about Moulson, it’s hard to understand what the Islanders are seeing in Vanek that’s worth the price of the upgrade. If you’d asked me whether I’d do Moulson for Vanek straight up, I’d have to really think about it because of the money involved and the fact that I know Moulson can produce for my team.

What’s even more confusing is the way this trade is being written about on blogs and in the media. The main issue, I’m told, is that there’s no guarantee the Islanders can re-sign Vanek. Where’s the emoticon for facepalming? Why on earth would a poor team like the Islanders want to pay Vanek what he can get on the open market when they should be looking for more guys like Moulson?

In fact, if the Islanders are very lucky, maybe they can re-sign Moulson in the offseason. After all, after his two goal night in his first game for Buffalo, he’s now on pace for a 53 goal season.

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