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Canadiens make bold move trading for Vanek

by Arpon Basu

Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has often stated his approach to the NHL Trade Deadline is one rooted in prudence because it's a day when a franchise can sink itself long-term in an effort to improve short-term.

With the Eastern Conference looking wide open this season, Bergevin decided to throw caution to the wind.

He landed perhaps the best scorer available on the market Wednesday, forward Thomas Vanek from the New York Islanders, in a trade for forward prospect Sebastian Collberg and a conditional second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.

The Islanders announced they get the second-round pick only if the Canadiens make the Stanley Cup Playoffs this season, in which case New York's fifth-round pick in 2014 will go to Montreal.

"For me, it's a message that Marc gives to the players that he's satisfied that the group has been working extremely hard and facing some adversity through the course of the season and battling for the playoffs," Canadiens coach Michel Therrien told reporters in California, where his team was preparing to play the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday. "As a coach, I'm really happy about Thomas Vanek [joining] our club. He's a right shooter, but he can play the left side, he can play the right side, so this is a great addition for us, and he fills a need.

"He's a goal-scorer and is always paying the price to score some goals."

The Canadiens become Vanek's third team this season after he was traded from the Buffalo Sabres to the Islanders on Oct. 27 for forward Matt Moulson, a first-round draft pick in 2014 or 2015, and a second-round pick in 2015.

Vanek, 30, is in the final season of a seven-year, $50 million contract he signed with the Sabres and is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1. He said while with the Islanders he intends to test the market for the first time in his career this summer and is not ready to discuss the possibility of re-signing with the Canadiens.

"Right now I'm just set and focused and excited to be a Montreal Canadien," Vanek said Wednesday during a conference call. "To be fair, this year has been tough for myself, for my family. To begin the season in Buffalo, my focus was with the Sabres. Then I get moved to the Islanders, so my focus shifts to that. Then nearing the trade deadline I knew there was a good chance, a real good possibility I might get moved again. So it's been quite the year and something I've never been through.

"Now I know it's over and I'm a Montreal Canadien, and I'm very excited and thrilled to just focus on hockey and help that team win a lot of games."

Having spent the first nine seasons of his career in Buffalo, Vanek is familiar with playing in Montreal and the unique atmosphere at Bell Centre.

"You think about the hockey Mecca, and Montreal is it," Vanek said. "For me, playing so many years with Buffalo in that building in Montreal, it's just one of those buildings and cities that the fans are so electric. Now to be a part of it, I was just thrilled and super excited about it."

Islanders general manager Garth Snow was under the gun to trade Vanek once the forward made it clear he wanted to test the market. The situation became even more urgent when Islanders No. 1 center John Tavares was lost for the season when he was injured playing for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, thereby making it more unlikely the Islanders would make the playoffs.

Considering what Snow paid to get Vanek, the GM needed to get somewhere near the same value in return when he traded Vanek away. Collberg was chosen by the Canadiens with the 33rd pick of the 2012 draft, a player who was ranked third among European skaters by NHL Central Scouting but who fell to Montreal in the second round.

Collberg has 19 points in 19 games for Sweden at the IIHF World Junior Championship, but he has struggled with Frolunda of the Swedish Hockey League with nine goals and nine assists in 121 games.

It would be hard to argue Snow got anywhere near as much as he'd hoped for in exchange for Vanek.

"It wasn't a very active market," Snow told Arthur Staple of Newsday. "Speaking for [Wednesday], this was the best deal that was tabled."

The Canadiens are the beneficiary of that soft market for Vanek, acquiring exactly the type of scorer the team needs heading into the playoffs.

Vanek was tied with Rick Nash of the New York Rangers prior to games Wednesday for the seventh-most goals in the NHL since Vanek's rookie season of 2005-06 (271). Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jarome Iginla, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau and Eric Staal have scored more.

Montreal was 27th in the NHL in goals scored 5-on-5 entering its game Wednesday against Anaheim, and Vanek has scored 15 of his 21 goals this season at even strength.

Vanek got off to a slow start with one goal and two assists in his first six games with the Islanders before being injured. After he returned Nov. 22, he had 16 goals and 25 assists in 41 games.

The top-scoring forward on the Canadiens prior to their game Wednesday was Max Pacioretty with 42 points in 54 games, one more than Vanek has in his past 41 games; no other Montreal forward had more than 36 points. Vanek brings some firepower to help take some of the defensive pressure from the opposition off Pacioretty's line with David Desharnais and Brendan Gallagher, which has been the only one producing on a consistent basis for the Canadiens.

So not only will Vanek help improve Montreal's offensive output by scoring himself, he may indirectly make Pacioretty a more productive player.

The Canadiens also are acquiring a player who is hungry for playoff hockey, and one who has excelled in postseasons past.

Vanek has not played a playoff game since 2011, when the Sabres were eliminated in seven games by the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. Vanek scored five goals in the series and has 15 goals in 36 playoff games, including seven in his past 10.

The Canadiens entered play Wednesday with a seven-point lead on the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals, who each have 68 points and are the top teams sitting outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

"That's the exciting part about me moving there; there's a very good possibility that I have a chance to be in the playoffs. That's what we all play for," Vanek said. "The season is such a long grind, there's so many games and the competition is tough. To be on a team that has a chance to be in the playoffs is just very exciting for me right now.

"Because once you get it anything can happen."

That's rarely been more true than this season in the Eastern Conference, so much so it compelled Bergevin to break character and make a move that sold a bit of the future but tells his team he is going for it.

The onus now falls on the Canadiens to make their general manager's bold move worthwhile.

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