WASHINGTON - Thomas Vanek knows how it looks, turning down a seven-year contract believed to be around $50 million from the Islanders.
"I'm sure people will look at it and say, 'Wow, that's crazy by him,' or whatever," Vanek told Newsday Tuesday morning, a day after news broke that he had indeed rejected such a deal and will now almost certainly be traded before the March 5 deadline.
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But it's not about the Islanders, he said.
"As I've told [general manager] Garth [Snow] before . . . It's like a breakup: It's not you, it's me. And it really is me wanting to explore this."
Vanek knows that his decision to head to July 1 free agency means the Islanders, a team that has been the punchline to plenty of hockey jokes over the past two decades, will get the short end once again. Big-time player says "no thanks" to struggling team, and so on.
For whatever it is worth, he said Tuesday his decision is not about money -- seven years, eight years, $50 million or $60 million.
"It's just me being a little selfish, I guess, and wanting to get to July 1 and seeing what's out there," he said. "It has nothing to do with this team and where we are in the standings. I think this team has a tremendous upside. Is it the right move? I don't know. But it's something me and my family want to explore one time and see how it goes."
There could conceivably be some awkward moments over the next three games before the NHL's Olympic break and however long trade talks take in the 10 days after the break, leading up to the deadline. Vanek will head to Sochi on Sunday to captain Austria's first Olympic hockey appearance since 2002
But Vanek's Islanders teammates understand, as do almost all pro athletes, that a player's contract and livelihood aren't topics for debate.
"Vanny's been great since he's been here, he's really enjoyed his time here," captain John Tavares said. "Like many guys that come here, I think he's been really surprised at what it's all about, what the Islanders are all about. Whatever his decision is, we respect him, and he's got a lot of respect for the guys in here. We still play hard and we still try to reach the goals we set out at the start of the year."
Those goals are further off than Snow, Tavares and Vanek would have hoped when Snow dealt Matt Moulson, a conditional 2014 first-round pick and a 2015 second-rounder to the Sabres for Vanek on Oct. 27, when the team was 4-4-3. They went just 5-15-4 over the next seven weeks, sending them to the Metro Division basement. Even after a decent January, the Islanders still sit there, nine points back of the Capitals, last night's opponent, and 12 points out of a playoff spot with 25 games to go.
So Vanek understands what his decision to turn down the contract means: The team needs to recoup some of the lost assets from the trade, even if Vanek still holds the Islanders in high regard when the courting begins officially July 1.
"Even if I would like to avoid it, you can't, so you do think about it," Vanek said of a possible trade. "But I hope we put three wins together here [before the break], get closer to where we need to be and after that, there's not much I can say, anyway. I can go anywhere. There's no reason for me to sit and speculate on what's going to happen, because I don't know what's going to happen."
What the Islanders gave up
On Oct. 27, with the Islanders off to a 4-4-3 start and GM Garth Snow looking to shake up the team, the Islanders traded three-time 30-goal scorer Matt Moulson, a conditional 2014 first-round pick and a 2015 second-round pick to the Sabres for Vanek. Both Moulson and Vanek are unrestricted free agents after this season. (If it is a top 10 pick in the June 2014 draft, the Islanders can hold onto it and trade their 2015 first-round pick instead.)
What the Islanders offered
After playing alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo for three months, Vanek was offered a seven-year deal believed to be worth $50 million -- the same contract Vanek currently has. Vanek turned it down, determined to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1.
What happens now?
Snow will almost certainly trade Vanek by the March 5 deadline. Complicating matters is the Feb. 7-23 Olympic roster freeze. Snow can talk deals with fellow GMs during the freeze, but nothing can happen for those 16 days.
The Blues held talks with Buffalo before Vanek went to the Islanders and presumably would be interested. The Kings are one of the top defensive teams in the league but have the second fewest goals in the West. The Wings and Penguins could be looking for an elite scorer to add to an already impressive group of forwards.