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Wednesday Night Rivalry

Thomas Vanek reviving career in Detroit

32-year-old forward, signed as free agent, off to fast start with new team

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill was at the NHL Draft in Buffalo in June when he received a call from an old friend, St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko.

The Minnesota Wild had announced they were buying out the final season of forward Thomas Vanek's contract. Vanek was 32. His production had declined to a career-low 18 goals last season. He didn't have a reputation for hard work or defense.

But Blashill had known Vanek since the early 2000s, when he was recruiting for Ferris State and Vanek was playing for Sioux Falls of the United States Hockey League. Motzko had worked with Vanek as an assistant coach with Sioux Falls and the University of Minnesota, where Vanek had led the Golden Gophers to an NCAA championship.

Motzko had followed Vanek's NHL career through his time with the Wild.

"It just never seemed to be a great fit for him in Minnesota," Motzko said, "though when you watched games you could see his creativity and his high hockey intelligence."

Motzko told Blashill he thought Vanek would be a good fit in Detroit.

"Sometimes, I can guarantee you, he's misread, because he cares deeply and he's a team-first guy," Motzko said. "He's at his best when he's put in position to be part of the offense. I just thought he was looking for a home. He was looking for a chance to resurrect his career after the last couple years. I believe in [Blashill], and I believe in Thomas."

Blashill asked his newly hired assistant coaches what they thought. Each also knew Vanek: John Torchetti had just worked with him as an assistant and then as interim coach in Minnesota. Doug Houda had once worked with Vanek as an assistant with Rochester of the American Hockey League in 2004-05.

"Both of those guys felt like he was definitely worth signing," Blashill said. "They just both thought that he had excellent ability and that he's a good person who wants to win. Are there negatives? Yeah. Every guy has negatives. They thought the positives outweighed the negatives."

The Red Wings signed Vanek to a one-year, $2.6 million contract July 1. It's three games into the regular season, too early to judge anything, but so far there have been only positives.

Entering their Wednesday Night Rivalry game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS), Vanek has two goals and three assists, tying for the team lead with five points. He has won battles and backchecked.

"I listened to a lot of people that I knew real well that said he's got a great heart and wants to win, and that's all he's shown me," Blashill said. "He's pushed hard. He's worked hard."

Video: DET@TBL: Vanek puts Red Wings up early on power play

Blashill wanted the Red Wings to become faster and harder to play against in his second season behind the bench. Vanek did not seem to fit that new identity. The Red Wings also had a 22-year-old forward in the same mold as Vanek, Anthony Mantha, and fans were clamoring for him to be promoted from the minors.

But the Red Wings also had made the Stanley Cup Playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons, which created a dilemma: They expected to make the playoffs as usual, but they lacked high-end talent largely as a consequence of their success. They had not drafted in the top 10 since 1991.

With center Pavel Datsyuk returning home to Russia, the Red Wings traded his contract and $7.5 million salary-cap charge to the Arizona Coyotes. They hoped to sign free-agent center Steven Stamkos but never got a chance to make their pitch before Stamkos re-signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning. They signed free-agent center Frans Nielsen to a six-year, $31.5 million contract instead, filling the hole in the middle.

They looked at what Vanek not for what he wasn't, but for what he was. He wouldn't win many races. He wouldn't win the Selke Trophy. But he was 6-feet-2, 214 pounds, with smarts, skills and a strong stick.

"He's an interesting player, because it doesn't always look necessarily because of his gait and whatnot that he's working as hard," Blashill said. "But he wins puck battles. He's really strong on the puck."

They didn't necessarily need him to score 40 goals, as he had done twice, or 30 goals, as he had done four times. But if he could score 20, as he had done 10 times, that would help. They figured they could put him in position to succeed by giving him third-line minutes with speedier linemates at even strength and use him on the top power-play unit.

Video: DET@TBL: Vanek buries Nyquist's feed for second goal

In the end, with the short term and relatively low salary, Vanek was a low-risk, potentially high-reward addition, and Mantha needed more time in the minors to develop.

"I wanted Thomas Vanek on this team," Blashill said. "He brings an elite offensive ability that's hard to get when you don't draft high. … I just said that I thought the things that he was good at were things that we could really use, and if he worked, if he paid attention to detail, if he played defense, it was going to work out great."

Vanek remained confident in himself. He appreciated those who showed confidence in him and liked the Red Wings' history of cerebral, skilled hockey.

"I still know I can score and make plays in this league," Vanek said. "[When] I know I can't do that, then it's time to retire. I felt good the last two years, but sometimes … It wasn't the right fit for some reason in Minnesota. I think the role I was in wasn't the one I was used to. I'm not faulting them. I had my downs too, and I'll take my share of blame. …

"I talked to several teams at the beginning of the summer. The few I talked to all expressed that they still believed in me, and I think just hearing that motivates you as an athlete. At the end of the day, I just picked Detroit because I liked the way they played in the past, the way they play the game."

As for what Blashill said about working hard, paying attention to detail and playing defense?

"I think sometimes in this league you get labeled as something, and it sticks," Vanek said. "Am I the best defensive player? I know I'm not. But again, I feel like I'm fine in my own zone. The words he's said are nothing different than I've heard from other teams I've played with. For me, it's not a change at all."

Video: OTT@DET: Green's shot eludes Hammond to open scoring

The line of Vanek, Darren Helm and Gustav Nyquist has been the Red Wings' best at 5-on-5, and Vanek has three of his five points on the power play.

Vanek scored twice in a 6-4 loss at Tampa Bay on Thursday. He had three assists in a 5-1 win against the Ottawa Senators on Monday. Twice, he won a puck battle with defenseman Cody Ceci to set up a goal. Also, after a Detroit turnover on a power play, he put his head down and chugged back almost the length of the ice to disrupt a shorthanded chance by Senators forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau.

"I think he kind of had that rap of not working too hard," Helm said of Vanek. "I think he's a pretty hard worker. When pucks go the other way, he's quick on his feet to get going the other way to help backcheck. I think he's doing that well right now and that's helping our line be successful, and we need him to continue that."

That's the plan. Vanek needs to continue that to earn another contract; the Red Wings need him to continue that to earn another playoff berth.

"I just want to show each and every night that I can make my linemates better," Vanek said. "To me, I know I'm not the fastest player, but I think hockey IQ doesn't get measured, and I feel like I got lots of that. Each night I just want to make my linemates better, and my game will speak for itself."

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