Top Shelf: Isles make bold move to add Vanek

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Updated: 10/28/2013 1:21 pm

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There was little to no chance Thomas Vanek would survive this season without being traded by the Buffalo Sabres.

So, when Vanek was dealt to the New York Islanders on Sunday, the only surprising things were the team he was traded to and that the move came so early in the season.

It's no secret the Sabres are planted firmly in a rebuilding phase, and with Vanek expected to be a prized free agent next summer, the club couldn't afford to not get something for the talented winger before he inevitably left Buffalo behind.

What the Sabres received in return from the Islanders for Vanek was a pretty substantial haul considering this could wind up being a one-year rental for New York.

The Islanders sent forward Matt Moulson to Buffalo along with a first-round draft pick in 2014 and a second-rounder in 2015. Now, Moulson, who like Vanek is 29 years old and a prospective unrestricted free agent next summer, also could wind up being a rental, but the draft picks are a valuable commodity for a rebuilding franchise.

Garth Snow, general manager of the Islanders since 2006, knows a thing or two about rebuilding projects, but the move for Vanek is clearly one designed to help his club win now, not years down the road. That alone is reason to be hopeful if you happen to be an Islanders fan. Even if Vanek ultimately departs this summer to sign with another franchise, at least New York is finally taking an aggressive approach to improving its long-suffering club.

By dealing Moulson, a winger who had terrific chemistry with centerman John Tavares, the Isles have decided to try and shake things up by making a potentially major upgrade to Vanek.

With the Isles off to a sluggish 4-4-3 start to the season, Snow felt like something had to be done. The club ended a five-season playoff drought last spring, making the postseason for just the second time in seven campaigns under Snow, and the GM felt a change was needed to keep the momentum of the franchise headed in the right direction.

"I didn't like the way we'd been playing," Snow told Newsday on Sunday night. "We're better than our record indicates and we need to take the next step. Thomas is an elite player in this league and he'll help us now and in the future."

And there is reason to believe Vanek will be an improvement over Moulson. After all, Moulson was signed to a minor-league deal by Snow in 2009 and went on to score 30 or more goals in each of the next three seasons. But, he was a virtual unknown in the hockey world before getting a chance to play alongside Tavares, the 23-year-old cornerstone of the franchise.

If playing on a line with Tavares can help transform Moulson, a player selected in the ninth round by Pittsburgh in the 2003 draft, into a perennial 30-goal scorer, what can we expect from Vanek on Long Island?

In Vanek, the Isles acquired one of the more consistent goal scorers in the league. Through good times and bad in Buffalo, the Austrian sniper was the focal point of the Sabres' offense, but his production has fallen off a bit in recent years thanks to the long decline of his former franchise. Still, he's scored at least 20 goals in his first eight NHL seasons, including 20 in just 38 games during last year's lockout-shortened campaign.

However, Snow hopes getting away from Buffalo can help Vanek get back to the level he displayed from 2006-07 to 2008-09, when he averaged nearly 39.7 goals a season. He then averaged nearly 28.7 goals a campaign over the next three seasons, but it's hard to blame the drop in production on Vanek alone.

Since making it to the Eastern Conference finals in back-to-back springs in 2006 and '07, the Sabres have missed out on the playoffs in four of six seasons and never made it out of the first round. Although Buffalo has been stuck in neutral for several years now, the club really only committed to the rebuilding project after firing longtime head coach Lindy Ruff in February of last season.

Through it all, Vanek led Buffalo in goals in six of his first eight seasons with the Sabres and he was tied for the team lead with four tallies this season. However, with the Sabres running out a lineup full of young prospects on a nightly basis, there was really no choice but to deal Vanek and keep the reclamation project moving along.

The trick for the Islanders now is to find a way to convince Vanek to stay for longer than this season alone. If the left winger clicks with Tavares as it is expected he will, that could go a long way toward Vanek looking at the Isles franchise as a permanent home. The fact the Islanders are moving from the much- maligned Nassau Coliseum to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn after the 2014-15 season also could make his new team a more attractive option.

The pitch to keep Vanek will begin Tuesday when the newest Islander gets a taste of his club's rivalry with the New York Rangers.

Only time will tell if the Vanek-Isles marriage becomes one for the ages or is doomed to fade once Vanek gets closer to his time on the open market.

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