The Buffalo Sabres entered this week tied with the Montreal Canadiens for the Northeast Division lead with nine points, in part due to the performance of NHL goal-scoring leader Thomas Vanek
. He has seven goals and ranks second in scoring with nine points.
Vanek is off to the best start of his four-year career, scoring at least one goal in all five games. He had two goals in games against the New York Rangers and New York Islanders. Vanek also leads the NHL with 32 shots on goal.
For that, Vanek was named one of the NHL's Three Stars of the Week, along with
Minnesota Wild goalie Nicklas Backstrom and Dallas Stars left wing Fabian Brunstrom.
The Sabres finished fourth in the Northeast Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference last season, 14 points behind the Canadiens and four points out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Not only are they keeping pace with the Canadiens early this season but they proved on opening night that they are fleet-footed enough to keep up with Montreal, one of the NHL's fastest teams.
"I think it's huge," Vanek said. "Our mentality changed in training camp this year. Our coaches harped on winning tight games and playing better defensively. We lost a lot of games that way last year and eventually got the attitude, 'Hey, we have to stop this and start winning again.'"
Vanek was criticized last season for a slow start after signing a $50 million contract. He didn't demand that deal. Edmonton offered it and Buffalo matched. But it put the then-third year player under a lot of pressure. He was asked if coach Lindy Ruff talked to him about not letting that bother him this year
"No one talked to me about that and the pressure is the same this year as last year," Vanek said. "With my personality, no one tells me to settle down. I have high expectations of myself. If I lose them, I'll take a step back."
He did admit that being labeled a goal scorer brings its own set of expectations, not all team-oriented.
"It's a good label and a bad label to have," Vanek said. "If I'm known as a goal scorer, I want to be known as putting up points. At the same time, it's a team sport and I'm not too worried about my goals and points totals. At the end of the year, I'll look back and want to be in the top 20 in goal scoring."
Vanek said he is getting increased ice time this year, due mostly to more time on the penalty kill. Two of his goals have come when the Sabres were shorthanded and he has three power-play goals.
"There's not one thing to point back to in my starting slowly last year. I'm normally a pretty slow starter and it took a while to get going. In the second half, Lindy gave me more ice time and responsibilities. My minutes went up and I stayed in the game better and got a better flow that helped me. It's been a tremendous help early this season. I'm seeing time on the penalty kill again and it makes the game easier. I got rewarded with a few shorthanded goals. It's better than sitting on the bench for 5 or 6 minutes."
The Sabres didn't panic after missing the playoffs last year. Their only big signing was defenseman Craig Rivet, who was named Sabres captain. And veteran Teppo Numminen is back after playing only two games last season after heart surgery.
"I think it's made a huge difference," Vanek said. "Last year, we scored enough goals, but we lost close games. Craig Rivet is a big, tough defender who makes us better and he's a right-handed shot. Teppo is another right-handed shot and excellent defensively. We had six left-handed defensemen last year and it was tough to break out the puck sometimes. So, it makes a difference by making it easier for them to move the puck out of our end. Up front, every line is doing well."
Vanek is the son of an Austrian hockey player and he developed a desire early in life to play in the NHL. Vanek came to the United States to play hockey when he was 14. He played in the USHL and then attended the University of Minnesota for two years. He was the Golden Gophers' leading scorer when they won the 2003 NCAA championship with Keith Ballard, Paul Martin, Tyler Hirsch, Troy Riddle, Grant Potulny and Barry Tallackson.
Vanek said his university experience was a major factor in preparing him for the NHL.
"I think it was great and I would do it all over again," Vanek said. "Minnesota gave me a great opportunity, a tremendous chance and they had great facilities. I got a great education. That's an important part of college. You play fewer games and have more workouts, especially off ice. I learned more about myself than if I had played juniors and was traveling all the time. It was a good route for me."
The Sabres play the Minnesota Wild at St. Paul's Xcel Center Thursday, and Vanek is excited about returning.
"I spend my summers in Minnesota," Vanek said. "My wife's family is from there and all the in-laws will be there. It will be a good time. I have a lot of friends there from when I went to college. It's a hockey state and I still enjoy coming back there. It's going to be a tough game against the Wild but it will be special for me."