Prior to the 2005-06 regular season, Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff predicted that left wing Thomas Vanek would score between 20 and 25 goals during his first season in the National Hockey League.
The fifth-overall selection in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft validated Ruff's beliefs and almost exceeded his coach's expectations by putting 25 in the back of the cage. He added 23 assists to go along with that total for 48 points, the most by a Sabres rookie since Derek Plante notched 56 in 1993-94.
Vanek's regular season rookie campaign landed the Austrian on several rookie franchise lists, including fifth in goals and tied for tenth in points with Donald Audette.
As the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoffs loomed, the presumptions of Vanek's dominance in a late run by Buffalo multiplied. But as often happens to younger players, the increased challenges of the playoffs can be difficult to overcome.
In 10 playoff games, Vanek scored two goals and posted a plus/minus rating of minus-one. His average 10:44 of ice time per game was the fourth lowest on the team.
"Playoffs are a different level of play and different level of intensity," Ruff said. "You get in situations that can cost you the game. You have to see the utmost desperation and some don't have that yet."
During the Sabres run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Ruff talked about how common it is for inexperienced players to be "overwhelmed." Defensive lapses and decreased production are often times understandable with the increased pressure of the postseason.
"I wasn't surprised that some other players that had been around longer had passed him by (during the playoffs)," Ruff said. "I looked at the way some of the other younger, talented players (around the league) played and it was similar to Thomas' struggles."
Ruff cited fellow rookies and former first-round draft selections in 2003, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, as examples. The duo was fantastic for the Philadelphia Flyers during the regular season combining for 34 goals, 76 points, and a plus-16 rating, but were vexed against Buffalo in the first round. The first-year professionals amassed only a single assist and were a collective minus-nine.
"Playoffs are a whole new game," said Ruff. "There's a whole new level there, a whole new intensity level."
Fully aware of Vanek's game-breaking ability, Ruff went as far as to analyze entire games for the rookie during the playoffs in an effort to speed his education process. And the teaching didn't just pertain to Vanek's shifts. Ruff would dissect the performance of every line during the 60 minutes of play in each session.
"We've had the heart-to-heart talks," said Ruff of Vanek. "We've had a few of them and some long ones during the playoffs. I think that watching, learning and being in most of the games is a good experience for him. He understands that it's going to take more."
Despite his recent struggles, Ruff is still confident in Vanek's ability to become an impact player in the NHL during both the regular season and playoffs.
"We only made decisions on who was playing the best," said Ruff. "I really believe in Thomas still."