Thomas Vanek is struggling. This is not breaking news for most hockey fans.
What did fall into that category, however, was media in Montreal revealing that Vanek was alternating in with the Canadiens fourth line, which implies he won’t play in Montreal’s must-win (let's be honest) Game 3 tilt against the New York Rangers.
At first, I was aghast. Offensively talented players go through peaks and valleys, so by taking a guy out during a valley, you’re forfeiting one of his potential peaks. How is it not beneficial to play a slumping star over a guy who has no expectations...for a reason? There’s a time during the season to “send messages” to players, but doing it in such a crucial game is an exaggerated case of over-thinking, or at least under-thinking and over-coaching.
But the more I looked at the numbers and really thought about the way he’s looked, the more convinced I've become that he’s hurt. It’s definitely possible he isn’t, but take a gander at the evidence of just how bad he’s struggling, particularly of late, and consider what makes the most sense.
In the six games prior to Game 3 against Boston, Vanek averaged 2.33 shots per game in the post-season. His playoff average coming into this season was 2.28. His regular season average is 2.84.
In the six games since Game 3 against Boston he’s averaged 1.16 shots.
There’s a pretty clear statistical divide following that game, and it isn’t just shots.
In the six games prior to Game 3 he averaged a Corsi for percentage of 52.3%. Since, he’s posted a 36.3%. Say what you like about Tampa, but I don't think they account for a swing like that on their own.
He’s gone from three goals and two assists in six games to two goals and no assists over over the same span, and if you’ll recall, his two-goal performance (since Game 3) came in Game 6 on a backhand chip into an open net on the powerplay, and an empty netter.
The biggest tell is his ice time. You can argue that’s chicken-and-egg stuff - maybe he isn’t playing as well so he’s playing less - but it’s just too drastic for me.
During the regular season with the Habs he played the third-most among forwards (18:11 per night), and he was around a similar number through six playoff games.
Then, if you’ll recall, this happened:
That collision with P.K. Subban and Reilly Smith took him to the dressing room, taking his ice down to 11:42 for that night. Subban’s leg wrapped around his torso, he twisted, and fell on his shoulder and elbow. Basically, I’d call the brunt of the blow “upper body,” which would limit your ability to shoot, among other things.
He came back and they appeared to try to use him as they had, giving him 16:09 and 18:31 the next two games, but it just wasn’t working (medicine that numbs pain can only do so much). Since, he’s dropped down to 14:07, 14:51, 13:05, and finally 11:41.
To me it’s the exact trend you’d expect after an injury - see if this guy’s fine, find out he’s not, try to use him in a smaller role, then admit his game is just too badly altered to be effective.
Playing through injuries as a player expected to produce offense can be brutal. It gets worse when you start to “slump” and people don’t realize how limiting your pain really is, and you start over-thinking. Even if it weren’t NHL policy to hide injuries, what would you say? “I know I’ve been bad, but this really really hurts.”
You spend the vast majority of warm-ups trying to feel out what you have to offer that night, and trying to find alternate movements that don’t hurt as much. You think about it when you take your first hit, and you hit a mental glitch when you’re racing someone for your first puck. This is gonna hurt.
For Vanek, some of the shots he’s pass up have been telling. Here’s a multi-year 40-goal scorer on a clean breakaway with his team down 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Final.
His linemate, Alex Galchenyuk, is 15 feet behind and gets a pass that has to beat three Rangers. Vanek even looked hesitant to take the breakaway at first (more evident with full video), like he was hoping someone would come with him he could dish to.
Of course it’s possible that he’s “squeezing the stick” right now. Or maybe his head really is in Minnesota. Or maybe (insert Don Cherry voice) HE’S JUST ONE-A THEM SILLY EUROS WITH NO HEART, Y’KNOW? LET’S GO!
But in all likelihood, some injury is limiting Thomas Vanek’s ability to play like Thomas Vanek. If he doesn’t play in Game 3, I’m going to be hesitant to call it a “healthy” scratch.