After scoring 43 goals and 84 points in only his second NHL season and heading into last summer as a restricted free agent, Thomas Vanek
figured a team might come knocking with an offer sheet for his services.
Well, on July 6, that’s exactly what happened when Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe offered a whopping seven-year deal worth $50 million. After seeing his co-captains, Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, depart via unrestricted free agency only days before, Sabres GM Darcy Regier took only hours to match Lowe’s offer rather than accept the four first round picks he would’ve received as compensation.
All of a sudden, Vanek was the highest-paid player on the Sabres and had the security most athletes only dream about. But along with such a deal comes much higher expectations and heavy scrutiny.
“I was surprised and happy, for sure, to receive an offer that would keep me in one place for so long,” Vanek said. “That obviously was a significant contract. But I didn’t change anything. I just did my best to stick to my usual off-season workouts and prepare for the season.”
Nobody around the Sabres questions that Vanek has continued to display a solid work ethic throughout the season, but no one will also argue that the nature of the contract and the ensuing expectations have been obstacles.
Heading into tonight’s game with New Jersey, Vanek was far shy of last season’s pace with only 15 goals and 18 assists. Vanek scored only his third goal in 15 games Tuesday night and admittedly has not had the season he wanted or expected.
“A lot of things changed for him and his line,” coach Lindy Ruff said of Vanek and Drew Stafford and Derek Roy. “Their roles changed and they went from being a third line to the top line. They garner a lot more attention and respect and are constantly facing the opponent’s safe lines or checking lines, when maybe last season it was Briere’s line that faced that.”
Roy also signed a new contract (six years, $24 million), and can relate to what Vanek has experienced.
“You can say nothing’s different, but really, it’s always going to be tough to live up to the expectations that come with a big contract or signing, it’s the nature of the business,” Roy said. “You really want to come out of the gate and help the team even more than before, meet all the expectations. Because of that, you sometimes try too hard and forget what your role is. The pressure is always going to be high now, but you have to just remember to do the little things that got you here and I think he is doing that now.”
Vanek has been getting more chances recently, and Ruff also has seen improvement in his game.
“He needed more chances and he’s getting them now,” Ruff said. “You need to create those chances and take them to get things going again. He and his linemates are doing that and they’ve been on the offensive side of things on a more consistent basis recently.”
Vanek admits he felt the pressure and the need to compensate for the losses of Briere and Drury, as well as the constant parade of players to the team’s injury list.
“With some key guys leaving after last season and it seems guys have been going in and out of the lineup hurt all season, I think, yeah, at times I’ve tried to maybe step and do more, that’s just what you do as a teammate,” Vanek said. “But sometimes you can try to do too much and press harder. You end up not sticking with what you do best and hurt yourself and the team.”
Vanek seems to have lifted that weight off his shoulders lately, good news for the Sabres who sit four points out the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
“I definitely feel better lately,” he said. “I’m getting the chances and while I’m not finishing as much as I’d like, I just need to keep it up and stay confident. We have a chance to make it here and I’m going to keep trying to help us do that by playing my game.”
Who’s hot? -- After Tuesday’s win over the Senators, the Canadiens trail Ottawa for the division and conference lead by only one point. Montreal is 7-2-1 in its last 10 games and has been getting contributions from all areas. Forward Tomas Plekanec had six points (3 goals, 3 assists) in four games, including a two-goal effort against the Senators Tuesday. Alex Kovalev continued his monster season with six points (2 goals, 4 assists) in four games and forward Andrei Kostitsyn had four points (2 goals, 2 assists) over that same span. Defenseman Mark Streit continues to surprise on the blue line. Streit had five points (2 goals, 3 assists) in four games. Andrei Markov had a goal and three assists in four games.
The Sabres are back in the playoff hunt. Jason Pominville helped out with a goal and three assists in his last four games. Ryan Miller has held the fort and was 2-0 with a 1.50 goals-against average and .952 save percentage over the last week.
The Bruins hold the final spot in the East heading into Wednesday night’s action. Chuck Kobasew continues to lead the team with 19 goals after scoring twice in his last four games. He also had two assists.
Shootout Summary -- The Sabres lost 5-4 in a shootout against the Thrashers Friday, failing to score in the shootout. Atlanta forward Eric Perrin scored the lone goal and the winner for the Thrashers.
Black and Blue
Boston -- Center Patrice Bergeron is still on injured reserve as he recovers from a concussion he suffered on Oct. 27. Defenseman Andrew Alberts remains on injured reserve as he continues to battle post-concussion syndrome. There is no timetable on his return. Defenseman Bobby Allen (back spasms) and forward Glen Murray (hip flexor), are both day-to-day.
Buffalo -- Center Tim Connolly is day-to-day with a bone spur in his hip. Winger Maxim Afinogenov is on injured reserve with a groin injury.
Montreal -- Defenseman Ryan O’Byrne is still on injured reserve with a broken thumb.
Ottawa -- Captain Daniel Alfredsson did not play against Montreal Tuesday night and is day-to-day with a hip injury. Forward Patrick Eaves is still day-to-day with a bad shoulder. Forward Dany Heatley remains on injured reserve with a separated shoulder. Heatley continued to skate with the team the past week and may return sooner than expected.
Toronto -- The Maple Leafs still have plenty of bodies out but that could change by Saturday. Forward Alex Steen (separated shoulder) and Bryan McCabe are expected to return Saturday’s against the Red Wings, with McCabe an outside possibility for Thursday’s game in Montreal. Forward Alex Ponikarovsky is still on injured reserve with a dislocated shoulder, but is healing quicker than expected. Forwards John Pohl (sprained ankle) and Mark Bell (broken orbital bone) are on injured reserve.
The Week Ahead -- The Sabres continue a stretch of five games in seven days when they host the Devils tonight. … On Thursday, the Leafs and the Canadiens renew their rivalry in Montreal, and the Senators host the Panthers. … The Sabres and Bruins hook up for the second time in four days at HSBC Arena Friday. … Saturday, three Northeast teams will take place in CBC’s annual Hockey Day In Canada. The Leafs host the Red Wings at 3 p.m. and the Senators host Montreal at 7 p.m., the second game of a tripleheader on CBC. The Bruins host the Panthers. …The Sabres host the Panthers in the only Northeast game Sunday. … Tuesday, the Canadiens are in Tampa Bay, and the Sabres and Senators play at Ottawa.