Declaring your team's most important player is not a simple thing. It's not always the most valuable guy or the highest points producer. It is the player who makes your team go; the one you can't afford to lose, even if all he contributes can't be measured by fancy stats.
Most Important Player: Thomas Vanek, Forward
Maybe your eyebrows arched just a bit when you saw Vanek listed as the Minnesota Wild's M.I.P.
This is not a list of the "best" player on each team but the most important. And important is a relative term to be sure.
To be honest, Vanek has been relatively disappointing since signing a three-year contract with the Wild in the summer of 2014. In fact, he was relatively disappointing before signing the deal but that didn’t stop general manager Chuck Fletcher from bestowing a three-year deal worth $6.5 million annually on the skilled winger.
The Wild are at a kind of crossroads having made the playoffs in three straight seasons, advancing to the second round in each of the last two appearances. Fletcher has assembled an enticing blend of veterans led by Parise and Suter -- the undisputed leaders on this team -- and impressive youngsters, including Jonas Brodin, Jason Zucker, Erik Haula, Matt Dumba and newcomer Mike Reilly. Fletcher also locked up Vezina Trophy nominee Devan Dubnyk for the long haul after acquiring the netminder from the Arizona Coyotes last season.
In short, this is a team that should be ready for the next step. Maybe the next two or three steps. But it says here those steps do not get taken unless Vanek is prepared to walk in lockstep with his teammates.
So far that hasn’t happened.
When the Wild were being swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in a deceivingly close second-round series this past spring, Minnesota ached for a timely goal from anywhere in the lineup as they dropped three one-goal games.
And wasn’t Vanek signed to produce goals, both timely and otherwise? Yes. Asked and answered.
After collecting a modest 21 goals during the regular season, Vanek came up dry in the postseason with zero goals in 10 games. Dating back to 2014 when he was with the Montreal Canadiens, Vanek has two goals in his past 21 playoff games and both of those were scored in one contest.
Now, a mitigating factor has been -- or may have been -- lingering groin issues for which Vanek had surgery in the offseason. He is expected to be at full strength when the season starts, and that is crucial for a Wild team that is in danger of seeing its window as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender slide shut. The team’s key personnel -- Parise, Suter, Jason Pominville and Vanek -- are all 30 or older. These are the days to capitalize on what should be a team capable of a deep playoff run. But that run isn’t likely to take place without meaningful contributions at meaningful times from their most gifted offensive player, Thomas Vanek.