Canadiens’ Vanek can look rough close up

Thomas Vanek's stock has gone up and down during his time in Montreal. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Want to play an entertaining game? Tear the last three months out of your calendar, pin the sheets to a wall, take eight steps back and throw a handful of darts in different directions.

(Don’t worry, the fun doesn’t end at tossing sharp things recklessly.)

Whatever dates the darts stick in, plug them into a Google search along with “Thomas Vanek” and the phrase “Canadiens fans hope.” You’ll find the results vary widely, from “Canadiens fans hope the team hands free-agent-to-be Thomas Vanek a blank cheque” to “Canadiens fans hope blank Thomas Vanek checks in soon.”

It’s been that kind of ride.

Five games into Vanek’s Habs career—which began when Montreal GM Marc Bergevin acquired him in the most lauded deal of the March trade deadline—the top-line winger had yet to register a goal. All of a sudden, a decent prospect and a draft pick seemed like a lot to surrender for Vanek’s services. Then, in his sixth contest, Vanek bagged a hat trick that nearly brought down the house during a huge win over the Colorado Avalanche. Slotted alongside David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty on one of hockey’s most lethal lines, Vanek closed the season with 14 points in 13 games. In his first playoff game, Vanek had one goal and seven shots on net. At that point, popular opinion around Montreal was if retaining the sniper meant Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien going all George Clooney and Brad Pitt to open a vault Ocean’s 11 style, so be it.

But a love that forms so fast is bound to hit some snags. In the dozen games since Vanek’s strong playoff opener, his stock has plummeted. He’s been bumped from the top line in favour of Brendan Gallagher, and things bottomed out in Monday night’s 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers when, during a contest in which his team desperately needed an offensive spark, Therrien limited Vanek’s ice time to 11 minutes and 42 seconds. For the third time this post-season, Vanek failed to register a shot on goal. On six other occasions, his attempts have been capped at one.

Now there’s speculation “Thomas Vanish,” as some have taken to calling him, might be a fourth-liner or even a healthy scratch for Game 3 in New York on Thursday.

Is Vanek’s lack of production the result of a westward focus that has him dreaming of inking a long-term pact with his adopted hometown Minnesota Wild in the off-season? Maybe. But the more likely scenario is that many fans and media alike are finally getting a close look at a player who was never in danger of being dubbed “Charlie Hustle” while toiling in Buffalo and Long Island.

The perfect example of what Vanek brings came in the second-round win over the Boston Bruins. The Austrian ended that series with four goals in seven games, which is a terrific stat line. But look closer and you’ll see those four goals came in just two games. During the five contests in which he didn’t score, Vanek attempted a whopping three shots on goal. Three of his tallies came on the power play, which isn’t to say they weren’t incredibly valuable but does suggest they weren’t the result of all-encompassing effort. The fourth goal went into an empty net.

The best way to illustrate the Vanek approach might be to contrast him with the guy who replaced him on the top line. Gallagher—who spent most of the season with Desharnais and Pacioretty before Vanek arrived—is the type of player who appears physically incapable of not giving his all every shift. His value is constantly visible. Vanek just doesn’t work that way. Never has. When he’s not scoring, his style will draw scorn, and things are exceptionally bad right now.

But look away for a minute, and he’ll fire that one deadly dart at the bull’s eye and cause a fickle fanbase to again wonder what they’ll ever do without him.

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