VANCOUVER – A long time ago in the Vancouver Canucks’ dressing room, Mike Sillinger emerged showered and dressed and loudly declared to no one in particular: “I can’t wait until tomorrow!”
Sure enough, some sucker asked why. And Sillinger beamed in triumph and yelled the punchline: “Because I get better looking every day!”
Few people do. And we can assure you with certainty that Michael Sillinger was not among the blessed. He looked like a hockey player before visors and mouth guards.
Thomas Vanek probably isn’t getting better looking with age, either. But he is one of those National Hockey League players whom you appreciate more when you see him each day than in twice-a-season snapshots.
Distant views of Vanek have not been flattering in recent years.
The Detroit Red Wings dealt him to the Florida Panthers at the trade deadline last season and Vanek, with two goals in 20 games, looked like the proverbial anvil thrown to a drowning man.
The year before, the Minnesota Wild bought out the final season of his three-year, $19.5-million contract. (Fun fact: When Vanek tipped in the tying goal in the Canucks’ 3-2 overtime win Sunday against the Wild, Minnesota was paying him more than Vancouver).
The perception from afar of Vanek as a talented but overpaid and less-than-fully-engaged player probably is due to former Edmonton Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe losing his mind in 2007 and offering the restricted free agent a seven-year, $50-million contract that the Buffalo Sabres matched.
Lowe gave Vanek a winning lottery ticket. Few people like somebody who gets given $50 million, although the recipient can always bear the envy, especially on payday.
So when the Canucks signed Vanek on Sept. 1 to a one-year deal for $2 million – two months after teams were allowed to sign him – those in Vancouver not indifferent to the signing greeted it largely with hostility.
But the winger from Austria and the University of Minnesota has been better than nearly anyone anticipated.
He is tied for second on the Canucks with 32 points, 13 of them goals, in 45 games and helped keep the offence alive when top centres Bo Horvat and Brandon Sutter were injured. He is important to a power play that has surged to eighth in the NHL from 30th.
Vanek has contributed more than points, mentoring rookie linemate Brock Boeser and providing a layer of leadership in the dressing room. Like Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Vanek shows up every day, works hard, stays positive and does what he is asked.
There is no doubt he has helped the Canucks. The question is how much other general managers might think Vanek, who turns 34 on Friday, might help their teams.
Vanek has known since he signed his contract that his time in Vancouver would probably be less than a season. There are no trade restrictions in his deal. And with the Canucks partway through a rebuild, general manager Jim Benning absolutely must leverage expendable assets for whatever might help the team next season and beyond.
So even as Vanek was among the best Canucks last weekend, tying the game in Minnesota and setting up two goals in Vancouver’s 5-2 win Friday in Columbus, he knew he’d probably be playing for someone else by the time the NHL trade deadline passes on Feb. 26.
“When I signed the contract it was for one year, but no movement, no-trades (restrictions), nothing,” Vanek says. “So reality is if you’re out of it by the deadline and there’s interest, I’m sure Jim will do what’s best for this organization. From that standpoint, I can’t really worry … because it’s out of my hands.
“I don’t really have a decision to make. It’s nothing I haven’t been through before.”
Vanek’s one-year deal with Detroit was also without any trade restrictions, and the Red Wings pried a third-round draft pick from Florida. Vanek had 15 goals and 38 points in 48 games for the Wings, production similar to what he has given the Canucks.
“I got traded last year and it sucks,” Vanek says. “But I got moved one year to Montreal (by the New York Islanders at the deadline in 2014) and we made a great playoff run. It was awesome. That’s the reason I play still – to win. I’ve made my money, so I don’t play for that anymore. I want to win the Cup.
“The deadline can go either way. You can go somewhere where it works out good, or you can go like last year … where it was a little bit dysfunctional when I got to Florida, and it ended up hurting me. I had a good year in Detroit, and then my last 20 games it kind of goes down the drain. That’s the downside of getting moved.”
Vanek has spent the last month playing on the Canucks’ top line with Boeser and Sam Gagner.
“If I have a question, I’ll always ask him,” Boeser says. “If he has a thought, he’s not afraid to tell me so I can I improve and be better. I think he’s a really good leader and, obviously, he’s a great player. He sees the ice well and is a really good playmaker. He always communicates. He’s always looking to help me.
“He’s been a big help to our team.”
Vanek says he likes the Canucks, likes the young players they’re amassing and believes the organization is moving in the right direction. But he also knows he’s not a fit for them long term.
“When we’re 100 per cent healthy, there are some really good pieces here,” Vanek says. “I want to win, too. Does it guarantee you (success) if you sign with Chicago? It doesn’t.
“It might give you a better chance.”