Thomas Vanek among the most valuable remaining UFAs

Florida Panthers Left Wing Thomas Vanek (26) chases down the puck during the first period of an Eastern Conference match-up between the Florida Panthers and the New York Rangers on March 17, 2017, at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY. (Photo by David Hahn/Icon Sportswire)
David Hahn/Icon Sportswire

There typically aren’t a lot of high-end free agents looking for teams in the middle of August. And this year is no different. While there are an unusually high number of restricted free agents still looking for new deals with their current clubs, most of the impact guys who are unrestricted have already landed somewhere.

Among the remaining UFAs out there, Jaromir Jagr is grabbing the most headlines. And that’s to be expected, considering the 45-year-old winger sits second on the NHL’s all-time scoring list. But there’s another UFA on the market who actually had more points than Jagr in 2016-17: Thomas Vanek.

The 33-year-old Austrian notched a respectable 17 goals and 31 assists over 68 games while suiting up for the Detroit Red Wings and Florida Panthers this past season. And while that’s a far cry from the 36 goals per year he was averaging from 2006 to 2011, it’s still useful production, particularly in the right situation.

Of course, now the question is where that situation is. There has been talk that Vanek could end up back in Detroit, but that may not make a lot of sense, at least not at first glance. Not only are the Red Wings unlikely to contend for anything of consequence this season, but they already have a decent collection of wingers in place.

Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou are the least experienced of the bunch, but they’re both coming off of encouraging seasons in their young careers. Does it really makes sense to cut into their minutes just to bring back Vanek? Maybe not.

That said, Vanek did most of his best work last season in Detroit. Of his 48 points, 38 of them came in his 48 games as a Red Wing. And he was effective while skating alongside some of the club’s younger forward talent. So a return isn’t completely out of the question. It essentially comes down to whether the front office feels like this group can realistically get back into the playoffs or not.

In many ways, Vanek really does make the most sense for a team that’s contending. The problem is, most of the clubs making a run at the Stanley Cup are already pretty close to the cap, so they likely wouldn’t be able to throw a lot of money at him.

For that matter, the Red Wings wouldn’t be able to throw a lot of money at him, either. In fact, they’re right up against the cap themselves, so they’d likely have to pull off a trade to clear room before they could actually bring Vanek back.

At age 33, he’s not going to command a long-term deal. But that’s not so old that he can’t continue to be effective. His 0.71 points per game this past season project out to 58 points over 82 games. To put that in perspective, Filip Forsberg, Jonathan Toews and Sean Monahan all finished the 2016-17 campaign with 58 points.

That’s why there are other teams keeping an eye on Vanek as well. Even though he wasn’t nearly as productive in his short stint with the Panthers last season, they could feasibly look at a short-term deal with him. They have some potential openings up front, and much more cap space available to work with than, say, Detroit.

A team like Calgary might even make sense too. The Flames have not only built a contender around a young core, they’ve done a good job sprinkling some key vets into the mix as well. They also have some cap space left, though they still need to sign RFA Sam Bennett. If they could make the money work though, Vanek might actually be a good linemate for the youngster – much like he was for Athanasiou in Detroit.

Even a possible return to Buffalo – where Vanek spent the first eight and a half seasons of his career – has been rumored as well. Wherever he ends up, he should still be able to contribute. If he lands on a team that already has a bevy of offensive weapons, he could make for a really productive third-liner that could play in the top six when needed. And there just aren’t a lot of players like that left on the open market.

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