July 7, 2007
Bold move from LoweKevin Lowe's daring pitch to steal Buffalo's restricted free agent Thomas Vanek backfired, but expect him to try the move again
By TERRY JONES
Call it The Thomas Vanek Affair.
For an hour or so there, Edmonton fans could see the young 42-goal scorer playing with Ales Hemsky for the next seven years. They could see Vanek and Hemsky making the young talents around them better. They may even have had visions of another Stanley Cup dancing in their heads.
Then another balloon burst like the one earlier in the week when they heard Michael Nylander was coming only to take $2.5 million less to keep his wife happy and play in Washington, D.C.
Kevin Lowe, in a desperate attempt to make his hockey team better, managed to make everything even worse.
Shortly after Vanek signed a $50-million US, seven-year offer sheet as a restricted free agent with the Oilers, the Buffalo Sabres matched the offer.
Lowe, who couldn't land an unrestricted free agent waving $18 million of budget money around in the air, just made himself a multitude of enemies around the league.
"We've always had an attitude here that we don't do these things," said Buffalo managing partner Larry Quinn, who actually threatened Lowe.
"As it comes to the Edmonton Oilers, if there is an opportunity for us to put an offer sheet on a player at any time - as long as we're alive - we'll be very comfortable in doing that! They can be expecting that if it is in our best interest."
Quinn said they'll leave the Group 2 free agents alone on all other teams.
"Just to the Oilers," he swore.
Look out Jarret Stoll and Joni Pitkanen?
The idea of Edmonton doing the dirty deed was always unthinkable. To do it to a team which had just lost Daniel Briere and Chris Drury to free agency and to target a town which is a less attractive destination than Edmonton to a great many players, makes this even more repulsive to many.
It's only a good move if the team doesn't match. Buffalo matched.
"It was always going to be a match situation," said Sabres GM Darcy Regier, who has, in the past week, had four players sign $157 million worth of contracts, including Vanek's to stay put.
"They were well aware that we were going to match. I suppose you have to assume they thought we were bluffing. What this amounted to was an exercise in futility."
The Sabres had a week to either match the offer or take four first-round draft picks as compensation.
The Oilers' deal with Vanek was for a reported $10 million and $8 million in the first two years including a $5-million signing bonus the first season and a $3-million signing bonus in the second. He would then make $6.4 million in each of the remaining five seasons. It was comparable to the deal Briere signed to go to Philadelphia.
Vanek earned $942,000 last year.
The six-foot-two, 208-pound 23-year-old left-winger would have solved two Oilers needs in one, replacing Ryan Smyth's goals and providing Hemsky a talent with whom to make magic.
Vanek is not only a goal scorer with 43 snipes, he had 84 points in the second year of his entry level contract in his second season in the league.
Lowe wouldn't say it, but he obviously believed an organization which couldn't keep Briere and Drury might not be willing to put up that kind of money to keep a 23 year old.
"I took it as a bit of a shot over the bow," he said in a media conference call.
"Fellas, it's a business. Take the personal out of it. It was right for the Oilers and obviously right for the Sabres," he said of Buffalo matching.
Lowe described the reaction of the Sabres as "rather juvenile on their part.
"A lot of people have been predicting this. I never wanted to say I or we would be the ones to initiate it.
"Am I disappointed? Absolutely. I could see Vanek helping complement the team we have and some of the players we have coming. With a player like that you can win a championship. You can get very excited.
"This wasn't a publicity stunt by any stretch. It was a strong, good shot to get a player. We had our reasons, internally, why we thought it might work based on the size of the offer."
LOWE GOT HOSTILE
Asked by one media member if this move signalled the NHL had gone hostile, Lowe almost got hostile.
"It's all about winning. Our building is full. Our fans commit a lot of money to filling that building. They want to see good hockey and see the team win."
All's fair in love and war. Except that Lowe, who is not getting a lot of love locally right now, just made his job tougher.
And I think he's going to do it again.
I believe Vanek was the only player he'd consider giving up four first round draft choices to obtain. But Thursday he did a deal to get back the Oilers' third-round pick from the Islanders.
A restricted free agent in the average salary range just below $4.9 million a year costs two first round, a second round and a third round choice. And they have to be your own picks. The others were in place.
Look out cap-heavy New Jersey and 31-goal scorer Zach Parise? Heads up cap-heavy Anaheim and 29-goal-scorer Dustin Penner? Look out budget-poor St. Louis and 27-goal-scorer Lee Stempniak?
If he's going to do it again, Lowe better guess right on a team not being able to match. He's playing a very dangerous game here for his city and for his career.