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Canadiens' Vanek heading for free agency July 1

by Arpon Basu

BROSSARD, Quebec -- The moment Thomas Vanek has been waiting for has almost arrived.

Vanek has made no effort to hide his intention to hit the unrestricted free agent market on July 1. He said so more than a year ago, when he was a member of the Buffalo Sabres. He still feels the same after being traded to the New York Islanders and then to the Montreal Canadiens at the NHL Trade Deadline in March.

Going on an extended run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Eastern Conference Final with the Canadiens has done nothing to change Vanek's mind that he will begin taking offers to sign with the team of his choosing as of July 1.

Thomas Vanek
Left Wing - MTL
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 10
SOG: 28 | +/-: -4
"A year ago I made a decision that it will likely be my only time to pick my own team, and hopefully pick a team where I have a chance to win," Vanek said Saturday as he and his Canadiens teammates cleaned out their lockers. "So once I made the decision, you can't look back."

Though Vanek has been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, his play in the playoffs likely didn't help his negotiating leverage. After posting 27 goals and 41 assists in 78 regular-season games with the Canadiens, Islanders and Sabres, Vanek had a wildly inconsistent postseason for Montreal.

Vanek tied for second on the Canadiens with five goals, but all five were scored in three games. He was held to one shot on goal or fewer in 11 of the 17 games he played after setting a career high with 248 shots on goal during the regular season.

"It wasn't great, obviously," Vanek said of his playoff performance. "[Friday] was tough waking up because I knew I could have made a difference, and I just wasn't there."

His reluctance to shoot led to speculation that Vanek was nursing an injury. On numerous occasions in the playoffs Vanek appeared to have a golden scoring opportunity but instead of firing the puck, he tried to force a pass to a teammate.

The same was true of Vanek's most significant scoring chance of the playoffs, one in which New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist made a miraculous blocker save in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final to keep the game scoreless shortly before Dominic Moore scored the only goal of the game. On that play, Vanek was actually trying to pass the puck across the crease to Michael Bournival, but Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi deflected the pass on net.

It might have been Vanek's most dangerous shot of the series, and it was actually a pass.

Vanek said Saturday he was no more injured than anyone else playing at this point of the postseason, and that his low shot totals and generally poor play were due to a lack of chemistry with center Tomas Plekanec. Vanek was moved from the Canadiens' top line with David Desharnais and Max Pacioretty to a line with Plekanec and Bournival before Game 3 of the Montreal's second-round series against the Boston Bruins. He said he never felt right from that point on.

"When I first got here I struggled a little bit, then got moved with [Desharnais] and [Pacioretty] and as a line I thought we were great," Vanek said. "I thought we were one of the best lines. Once I got taken off, I just struggled to find myself on a new line. I played with [Plekanec] most of the playoffs and it just didn't work. We're both, I believe, very good players, we're just not on the same page. It's just a different game."

Plekanec didn't disagree entirely.

"I guess he's right. We didn't score many goals, so I didn't see any chemistry there," Plekanec said. "It's not like we had so much time to work on that, we didn't play that many games together. Sometimes it works right away and sometimes it takes some time to find some chemistry. It's normal and it didn't work this time."

Vanek was under heavy scrutiny throughout the playoffs largely because of what will happen July 1. He will be among the top forwards available on the free-agent market, a player who has scored at least 25 goals in every full season he has ever played in the NHL.

But Vanek had not played in the playoffs since 2011, so his performance this spring was likely being watched closely by any prospective general manager who was considering offering him a contract. Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin might have been in that group, and still might be, but it would be difficult to believe he would make an offer based on what Vanek provided for his team in the playoffs and the likelihood he will come with a big price tag.

However, should Bergevin be interested in keeping Vanek, the 30-year-old said the door remains open for him to return to Montreal once he's considered all his options.

"It's a place where you want to be," Vanek said, "especially in the playoffs."

There have been many rumors linking Vanek to the Minnesota Wild come July 1. Vanek went to college in Minnesota, met his wife there and lives there in the offseason, so many people have made the natural link that he wants to sign there.

Not necessarily, Vanek said.

"I don't have a city preference," Vanek said. "It's going to come down to offers and I want to go somewhere to win. I've said that since Day 1, that's the reason I probably got moved twice, and I'm sticking to it."

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