Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It was always a risky move for the New York Islanders to trade for Thomas Vanek, and not because anybody had doubts about the sniping winger's ability to help the Isles.
It was a risk because Vanek is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and let's face it, Long Island has not been a prime destination for free agents in recent years.
Vanek could have his eyes set on another NHL city to become his future home, although that place won't have John Tavares or Kyle Okposo.
Since becoming an Islander in October, Vanek has joined forces with Tavares and Okposo to make up one of the league's most dangerous lines. Although it took some time for the trio to find the chemistry between them, New York's top unit is firing on all cylinders at the moment and it seems pretty fun being an Islander these days.
New York's Vanek experiment seems to be a full-fledged success presently, but the Oct. 28 trade did little to move the dial for the Islanders at first. The club went 5-15-4 through the first 24 games after Vanek came over from Buffalo, but the Isles are 12-5-0 since those growing pains and 10-3-0 over their last 13 outings.
The recent surge has yet to move the Islanders out of the basement in the Metropolitan Division. However, after Wednesday's action, New York finds itself just five points out of a playoff spot in the tightly contested Eastern Conference. After ending a five-year playoff drought last spring, the Isles aren't keen on missing out this season and the trade for Vanek was always partly an insurance policy to keep that from happening.
It's no secret the top line is the engine that is powering New York's resurgence in 2013-14. With or without Vanek, Tavares is going to be one of the most productive centers in the league for years to come, but playing alongside a player of Vanek's level does seem to optimize the potential of New York's ever-improving captain.
The line has been nothing short of dominant in January, combining for 17 goals and 43 points in 11 games. Vanek has five goals and nine assists this month, while Tavares has amassed seven goals and a league-leading 18 points in January. Okposo, who plays the right wing opposite Vanek, has five goals and six assists over the same 11 games.
Vanek has been a point-per-game player since heading to Long Island, registering 36 points (14 goals and 22 assists) in his first 36 games in an Islanders sweater. That's the kind of production that could convince a guy to make a long-term commitment with a franchise, but Vanek is maintaining his poker face when it comes to his future plans.
The question of whether Vanek will choose to sign an extension with the Islanders has been following him around since the trade. However, Vanek hasn't been at all interested in giving anybody a window into his soul when it comes to that subject matter and it doesn't seem like he's going to open up anytime soon.
Of course, just because Vanek is not revealing his intentions either way doesn't mean the Isles aren't working behind the scenes to convince him to stay. We may hear an announcement of an extension any day now, or this issue could go unresolved into the offseason.
It's impossible to tell where Vanek's head is at in regards to his free agency plans, but it's safe to say the play of both his line and his new team is not souring him on the Islanders.
The cost to acquire Vanek could prove high for the Isles if he only winds up being a one-season rental player, and I'm not talking about the loss of winger Matt Moulson, who is an above-average scorer but one worth parting with in exchange for a player of Vanek's caliber. Moulson also happens to be an unrestricted free agent and he could conceivably re-sign with the Isles if Vanek opts to fly the coop.
The real cost of landing Vanek was the pair of draft picks that were sent to Western New York along with Moulson. Buffalo picked up New York's first-round pick in this summer's draft as well as a second-rounder in 2015, and the Isles, a team with considerable depth issues, could always use an influx of young, cheap talent.
The fact the Islanders are moving from the much-maligned Nassau Coliseum to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn after the 2014-15 season could make staying with the franchise a more attractive option for Vanek, but that is pure speculation. Considering he isn't talking about his feelings either way, we simply don't know what selling points will work on Vanek.
Still, the way New York has been playing over the last month can't hurt the odds of retaining Vanek's services for the long haul. It's possible a continuation of that success over the next few months (and perhaps a deep run in the playoffs) could eventually win Vanek over.
For now, Vanek and the Isles should be content to ride this wave for everything it's worth. If nothing else, the partnership has helped boost excitement for a franchise that had been down on its luck for far too long. Getting Vanek to sign on the dotted line obviously would be an important step for the Islanders, but losing out wouldn't stop the franchise's momentum cold.
After plumbing the depths of what an NHL club can become, the Isles finally seem to be on the right track. That doesn't have to change simply because one player may decide to spurn them.