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Signing in Minnesota beyond Vanek's 'wildest dreams'

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Two hours after agreeing to a three-year, $19.5 million contract, Thomas Vanek slipped on a Minnesota Wild jersey for the first time.

"Feels good. Looks good," Vanek said.

Vanek, who makes his home about 20 minutes east of Xcel Energy Center in Stillwater, Minn., chose to take less money, over fewer years, to stay home and reap all the benefits that has to offer.

"It's beyond my wildest dreams," Vanek said. "It's still hard to put into words."

The process that brought the forward to the Wild began last year. Offered a long-term contract extension by the New York Islanders, Vanek turned it down and instead chose to gamble on himself and perhaps a chance to return to the place he first came to in 2002 as a freshman at the University of Minnesota.

"This is a place I have spent a lot of time the last 10 years or so," Vanek said. "What intrigued me the most was Zach [Parise] signing here and [Ryan] Suter signing here (prior to the 2012-13 season). This team was getting very good.

"About a year ago, when I made my decision to go to free agency, this was definitely a team I had in mind."

Coming off a seven-year contract worth $50 million he signed with the Buffalo Sabres in 2007, Vanek had several intriguing options when free agency began Tuesday, including one from the Islanders in an attempt to bring him back to New York, where he spent much of last season before being acquired by the Montreal Canadiens at the NHL Trade Deadline.

"I'm not going to sit here and say it was easy [turning down longer contracts]," Vanek said. "I really liked it on the Island and they were in the mix again today. I thought the line I played on there with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo was the best line I've been on. But at the end of the day, I made my decision and I'm not going to regret it."

What made the decision easier for Vanek, a native Austrian, is the presence of his family. His wife Ashley is from the area, and their home in suburban St. Paul is where she and their three sons have lived while Vanek has been away. Last season, as he was shipped from Buffalo to Long Island in October then from Long Island to Montreal in March, Vanek said he realized how much he missed his family, admitting it may have played a role in a subpar Stanley Cup Playoff performance with the Canadiens.

"It certainly wasn't my best one," Vanek said of his playoffs. "I'll take the blame for that. It's not always easy moving around and being away from my family like I have been. Those aren't excuses, those are just factors that factor in for me … family is big for me."

Also playing a role in bringing Vanek to Minnesota was Wild forward Jason Pominville, one of his best friends and a former Sabres teammate, who will start a five-year contract extension he signed in Minnesota a year ago. Defenseman Keith Ballard, with whom Vanek won a national championship with the Golden Gophers in 2003, played a behind-the-scenes role in selling the Wild.

"I didn't need much of a sales pitch," Vanek said. "I remember when [Pominville] got traded here and he was, I wouldn't say disappointed, but shocked because he loved Buffalo. I told him, 'You'll like it there,' and about a week or so later, he called and said, 'You're right, I do like it here a lot.'"

Minnesota, at 2.43 goals per game, finished tied for 24th in the NHL last season. Since 2005-06, Vanek has been one of the League's most prolific goal-scorers, ranking eighth in goals (277) and 17th in even-strength goals (113).

The Wild also hope their 16th-ranked power play unit will get a boost. Vanek's 161 power-play goals over that span rank third in the League.

"This guy has been a premier scorer since he entered the League," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "He still managed to have 68 points despite playing in three cities. We really wanted a [right-handed] shot, we wanted someone who can play with top players, and we wanted someone who can help our power play."

Vanek's three-year contract carries an annual NHL salary-cap charge of $6.5 million and will pay him $5.5 million in 2014-15, $6.5 million in 2015-16, and $7.5 million in 2016-17, when he will be 33 years old.

The Wild also signed defenseman Stu Bickel to a one-year, two-way contract; forward Brett Sutter to a two-year, two-way contract; and Guillaume Gelinas to a three-year, entry-level contract.

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