The need has been obvious for a long time, options to address it have been considerably less so.
The Montreal Canadiens are short on elite offensive talent, a pure goal scorer who can rival the conference’s sharpest shooters.
Sorry, that should be stated in the past tense.
Because Wednesday’s acquisition of highly coveted former Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders winger Thomas Vanek, at a surprisingly modest price (prospect Sebastian Collberg and a conditional second-round pick), provides an instant mid-season shot of dynamism.
Does this get the Habs into the contending-teams discussion?
Given the relative weakness of the Eastern Conference, the answer has to be yes.
More accurately, Vanek solidifies any internal pretensions Montreal has for a deep playoff run.
“For me, it’s the message that [GM Marc Bergevin is] giving to the players, that he’s satisfied the group is working extremely hard … this is a great addition for us,” head coach Michel Therrien told reporters in Anaheim, where his team was facing the NHL-leading Ducks on Wednesday night.
The hottest property in this year’s trade market is plainly excited: “You think about the hockey mecca and Montreal is it,” Vanek told a conference call.
But – and it’s a big but – the Austrian Olympian is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in July, and as he has done all season, brushed off questions on whether he’ll sign before then.
The 30-year-old lives in Minnesota in the off-season, his wife is from there and most of the hockey world expects it’s where he’ll sign.
“Have I heard [the Minnesota rumour]? Yes, of course, I’ve heard it,” he said, later insisting: “Right now, I’m focused on the Montreal Canadiens.”
The acquisition is a pure rental, and therefore a risk.
It’s one Bergevin, whose team sat third in the East going into Wednesday’s games, felt comfortable taking.
Vanek is a righty with silky hands and a fierce shot who mostly most plays on the left side.
With the top left-wing slots currently occupied by Max Pacioretty and Alex Galchenyuk, it could make sense to put him on the right and drop captain Brian Gionta down. (Vanek said he received congratulatory texts from Gionta and former Sabres teammate Daniel Brière.)
Answers will be forthcoming when Vanek joins his new team in Phoenix on Thursday.
“I’ve got a vision,” Therrien said, “but I want to talk to him first.”
Vanek will improve the Habs attack at 5-on-5 – Montreal is a bottom-five team at even strength – 15 of his 21 goals this year have been scored in that circumstance.
His arrival should also make the Habs a bona fide three-line team. (Added bonus: he has made a habit of filling the net against the Habs’ arch-rival Boston Bruins.)
Vanek alluded to it being a difficult season with all the moves (he and his wife have three boys). After a slow start on Long Island – he scored one goal and two assists in six games, then got hurt – he had 16 goals and 25 assists in his last 41 games as an Islander.
The acquisition is a canny bit of business by Bergevin, who evidently waited out the Isles management and got a cut-rate price.
The 20-year-old Collberg, who plays in the Swedish Elite League, is a good prospect, but not the best in the Habs system. While he has high-end offensive abilities, his progress has been slowed by concussions.
The Vanek acquisition wasn’t Bergevin’s only business – for an executive who disdains the deadline, he was busy.
Bergevin swung a deal Tuesday for Florida Panthers defenceman Mike Weaver, a steady, no-nonsense defender.
“As long as I’m not in the papers, I’m doing my job,” he told reporters in California.
On Wednesday, Bergevin also grabbed goalie Devan Dubnyk from Nashville in exchange for future considerations; Dubnyk was sent to the minors.
Bergevin oversaw all this from Chicago, where he mourned the passing of his mother-in-law.
If the second-year GM could be criticized for some recent moves – like the signing of defenceman Douglas Murray, who’s as zippy as an 18-wheeler – the Vanek trade will put a few credits in his account.
It may even be the master-stroke of deadline day.