Thomas Vanek wasted no time getting acquainted with his new team Monday.
Following Sunday night’s trade that brought him to Long Island from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Matt Moulson and a pair of draft picks, the newest Islander packed his bags, left Western New York early Monday morning and made it on the ice for the Islanders 11:30 a.m. practice.
“It's been a long 14 hours or so,” Vanek said to media members after his first practice with the team. “I knew [the trade] was going to happen sooner or later with the situation in Buffalo, but obviously when it did happen I was initially shocked. I’m excited to come here to a great young team with an up-tempo style.”
Vanek comes from a Sabres team in the middle of a rebuild, with nine players born after 1990 appearing in a game for Buffalo this season. The fifth overall selection in the 2003 draft, who has finished in the top-3 in Buffalo team scoring each of the past seven seasons, expressed a desire to play for a contender.
“It's a fresh start for me and hopefully I can help these guys out right away,” Vanek said. “I'm just happy to be here right now, taking it all in. An opportunity like this doesn't come around much. I'm going to try to make the most of it.
Hailing from Vienna, Vanek is one of three active NHLers born in Austria, and has represented his country at four World Championship tournaments and three times at the World Junior Championships. One of the other Austrians in the league, of course, is Michael Grabner. Though Grabner also has those tournaments on his resume, the two haven’t competed together, largely due to the age difference (at 29, Vanek is three years older).
“I've known him for a little bit,” Grabner said. “He's excited to come here and get a fresh start. He came [to North America] when he was really young. I've talked with him on the phone and text messaged with him over the past couple of years. It's great to have him on the team now, because he's a great addition and he'll help our lineup.”
Vanek also has an existing Islanders connection in Kyle Okposo. Vanek came to the United States as a 15-year-old and played in the USHL for three years before heading to the University of Minnesota for two seasons from 2002-04. Okposo arrived in Minneapolis in 2006, and while the two never played together for the Golden Gophers, they train together during the offseason at their alma mater.
“I’ve known Thomas for a long time,” Okposo said. “He’s a great guy – I’ve hung out with him, gone golfing with him a couple of times and skated with him a bit. I know him pretty well.”
Vanek said that it’s nice to have a couple of familiar faces in the room to help him adjust to a new place after spending parts of nine seasons in Buffalo, but he’s not depending on just Grabner or Okposo for help getting acclimated.
“I’ll have questions for them,” Vanek said. “But the hockey world is pretty tight-knit. Guys are pretty close and typically pretty good about that.”
Left Wing - NYI
Goals: 254 | Assists: 243 | Pts: 497
Shots: 1,685 | +/-: 29
Vanek, who is two NHL games shy of 600, needs only three points to reach 500 for his career. Head coach Jack Capuano wants to see how Vanek, who has eight 20-goal seasons and two 40-goal campaigns under his belt, fares on the top line with John Tavares
“Any time you trade a top player for a top player, that’s where he’s got to go,” Capuano said. “He’s very skilled, he’s good with the puck, he shoots the puck extremely well and he’s got good size. So he’ll start with John and Kyle and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
General manager Garth Snow felt the price for one of the league’s elite goal-scorers was appropriate. Snow said the Islanders could afford to part with the first-round pick in 2014 and second-round pick in 2015, given the pipeline of talent in the Islanders system, and that the time was right to make a deal aimed at improving in the present.
“I think with the prospect pool that we have and the excellent job we’ve done drafting, we probably lessened a burden by moving the first round pick and the second round pick,” Snow said. “It’s always tough to see a player like Matt go out the door, but you have to give up something to get something. We got an excellent player in return. He’s going to help our hockey club.”
After a 4-4-3 start for Long Island’s team, Okposo said the deal could serve as a wake-up call to the Islanders, who have a higher standard of success than in past seasons.
“The rebuild is no more,” Okposo said. “Expectations are definitely higher after last season. We’re not ok with being .500. We’re going to keep pushing to get better.”