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Wild's Vanek happy for chance to come home

by Dan Myers continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Possibly the worst kept secret in the hockey world during the past 12 months was Thomas Vanek's desire to explore the option of returning to his adopted home in the Twin Cities and play for the Minnesota Wild.

That desire became a reality July 1 when Vanek signed a three-year contract to play for the Wild, and in the process changed the way he approaches his hockey season.

No longer must he, his wife Ashley and their three sons pick up from their summer home in nearby Stillwater, Minn., and move somewhere else for the winter. They'll have the comforts of home year-round, including Thomas, who rolls out of bed and is a 20-minute drive from work.

"[The routine] changes, especially once the kids start school," Vanek said. "I would have been gone a good month already. You have to get back … for us it was Buffalo. You've got to get the kids settled. It's nice to stay here, train with my trainer and kind of get the full summer with him."

Vanek has made the Twin Cities his home since he arrived from Austria to play down the road at the University of Minnesota. He led the Gophers to the NCAA Championship in 2003, was taken by the Buffalo Sabres with the fifth pick of the 2003 NHL Draft and met Ashley, whose friends and family live in Stillwater.

Winning a title with the Gophers meant Vanek no longer was an Austrian who came here to play hockey. In the eyes of puck-crazed locals, he now was full-blooded Minnesotan.

"It's nice for us to call it home year-round now," Vanek said. "It's weird though, because for so many years we left for Buffalo. We enjoyed our time there and we made so many friends there away from the rink. We miss them."

Vanek will have the opportunity to re-kindle a friendship on and off the ice after signing with the Wild. His longtime teammate and good friend with the Sabres, right wing Jason Pominville, enters the first year of a five-year contract extension he signed with the Wild before the start of last season.

It was Pominville who sought out Vanek two years ago when the Sabres traded him to Minnesota, asking about the city, places to live and eat, and the general attitude of the people here.

And though Vanek will need no such help with those things, Pominville said it is cool to see things come full circle.

"Our wives are friends. You get to know the guy, get to know his family, his kids are growing. It's been a lot of fun," Pominville said. "Who would have ever thought we'd be back on the same team and here in his hometown? It's pretty exciting."

Exciting might be an understatement for Wild coach Mike Yeo, who spent his summer writing down different line combinations and finding ways to get his playmakers on the ice together.

Early in camp Yeo avoided putting Vanek and Pominville together, as they were for many seasons in Buffalo. Instead he's had Vanek on the left side of captain Mikko Koivu and right wing Charlie Coyle. It's a group that's big and provides Yeo with a number of different ways to create offense.

"They can go against heavy bodies and can play a down-low game," Yeo said. "But they can also score off the rush. Mikko is a very underrated playmaker and has the ability to find guys. And when you have a guy like Thomas, who's so good around the net, it's going to open up a lot more ice for the guys he's playing with."

No matter where Vanek ends up, and Yeo said he is willing to move pieces around if necessary, the objective will be the same: More goals. Vanek has scored at least 20 of them every season he's been in the NHL.

Minnesota tied for 24th with 2.43 goals per game last season, and more than half of their games ended up as one-goal games. The Wild were 24-7-12 in those games, a .558 winning percentage that was sixth in the League. The hope is Vanek will help improve upon those numbers, while at the same time turning a few one-goal victories into two-goal victories.

"There's a lot of times you're holding a 2-1 lead or a 3-2 lead, and if you can get one more goal you relieve a lot more pressure and you're playing a lot less difficult minutes," Yeo said. "Throughout the course of the year, that adds up to a lot."

The Wild begin their fourth season under Yeo, the youngest coach in the League, looking to continue their trend of improvement. They missed the playoffs in his first season, lost to the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round in his second season and lost to the Blackhawks in the second round last season.

Though the spoils of home certainly are nice, Vanek said he's here to build something too. After advancing to the Eastern Conference Final last season with the Montreal Canadiens, Vanek wants to bring that experience with him.

"That's my excitement," Vanek said. "It's not about me coming back, but what we can really do here."

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