While typically free agents have to hold their introductory pressers via phone, it wasn’t hard for Vanek to get to the arena. The former University of Minnesota star has lived in the State of Hockey since leaving the Golden Gophers for the NHL nine seasons ago. Now, the 30-year-old will remain in Minnesota year-round as the newest member of the Wild, and his exhilaration was palpable.
“I still can’t really put into words how exciting it is,” Vanek said. “Right now I’m just worried about getting my kids these jerseys and hopefully they can hang out in them a lot longer.”
He wasn't kidding. After the media availability he went to the Hockey Lodge warehouse for three sweaters for his children.
Remaining in Minnesota wasn’t the only selling point. He wanted to join a team that he believed could compete for a championship.
“I didn’t need much of a sales pitch,” Vanek said. “I’m friends with (Jason Pominville and Keith Ballard). They just all told me how much of a good team this is, with good guys. That’s important to hear. I remember when Pommer first got traded here…I told him, you’ll like it there, there’s a lot of good fans. After a week or so he called me said ‘you were right, I like it here a lot.’”
Vanek knows the state’s passion for hockey well. He was a two-year standout with the Gophers. In two seasons with the Golden Gophers, forward totaled 113 points (57-56=113) in 83 games (2002-04). In 2003, he lead Minnesota to college hockey’s ultimate prize and was named the NCAA Tournament MVP.
“The best thing in my career was winning an NCAA Championship with the Gophers,” Vanek said. “To be a part of the Wild now and go after the big prize, having a chance to do it here in Minnesota is beyond my wildest dreams.”
Vanek was intrigued with the Wild after the summer of 2012, when the club signed both Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to long-term deals. Heading into his summer of free agency the Wild was at the top of his list.
“My top priority was to sign here,” Vanek said. “I had some other options I had to think of. Once we agreed on this term and the money, I thought it was a fair deal for both sides and I’m very happy that I’m here.”
The Vienna, Austria native was offered longer and more lucrative contracts from other suitors, but felt comfortable signing with the Wild.
“Thomas may be one of the only players to take a pay cut and a term cut to come anywhere,” Fletcher said. “Everybody else is doubling and tripling their salary. Good for the players, but it’s maybe not the market we want to be in right now.”
On the first day of NHL free agency, teams were scooping up players at a furious rate. With Vanek’s deal, the Wild remains in good shape salary cap-wise.
“Right now, it’s been insanity out there,” Fletcher said. “I think this has been the biggest spending day if not in the history of the world and the history of the NHL. It’s just been crazy.”
A lot of the players around the League have been in the Western Conference, primarily the Central Division. Teams loaded up on free agency’s opening bell.
“It’s pretty daunting looking at the TSN scroll this morning, seeing every single player went to the West,” Fletcher said. “It seemed like every single player came to our division.
“It’s only going to get more difficult to make the playoffs.”
If today’s free agent frenzy looked like an arms race, the Wild procured the biggest offensive weapon available. Vanek is the NHL’s eighth-leading goal scorer (277) since 2005-06, totaling 556 points (227-279=556) in 663 games. He’s also third in the League during that span in power play goals (113).
“This guy has been a premier scorer since he’s entered the league,” Fletcher said. “He still managed to have 68 points this year despite playing in three cities.”
Last season, Vanek was traded twice. After starting the season in Buffalo, he was moved to the New York Islanders for forward Matt Moulson (who the Wild then acquired on Trade Deadline Day), a first-round pick in 2014 and a second-round pick in 2015. He was then dealt on the Trade Deadline Day to Montreal for forward prospect Sebastian Collberg and a conditional second-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft.
With Montreal, he scored 10 points (5-5=10) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to help guide the club get to the Eastern Conference Final.
“When you can add players personnel-wise that bring that kind of skill, that kind of creativity and that kind of ability, that’s going to increase the scoring,” Yeo said. “It’s not just about that player; it’s about what they do for the players that they’re playing with as well. There have been games where players need five or six chances to score a goal, there are other players that might need two or three.
“Thomas is certainly one of those guys that can capitalize on those opportunities.”
Wild Adds Three
After making the big first-day splash with Vanek, Minnesota added two depth pieces and a prospect. The Wild 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.
At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Gelinas is an offensive-minded defenseman entering his first year of pro hockey. The 21-year-old earned the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the top defenseman in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) in 2013-14 after totaling 92 points (23-69=92) and a plus-24 rating in 67 regular-season games with Val-d’Or.
Stoner Heads West
The Wild parts ways with Clayton Stoner, who spent his entire professional career in the organization. The bruising blueliner was drafted by Minnesota in 2004 (third round, 79th overall).
“Clayton’s a great guy, a character guy,” Fletcher said. “He fought a lot of battles for this franchise. He is certainly a well-liked teammate, well liked by management and coaching. I was thrilled for him, to be honest, on a personal level. I expressed that to him and thanked him for his years of service. He had a tough role and he did it with class, and did it consistently. We’re certainly very appreciative of what he did for us.”
Former Wild on the Move
Cody McCormick and Matt Moulson, who the Wild acquired on trade Deadline Day from Buffalo, are both heading back to New York, signing with the Sabres. Jon Landry, who spent the year with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Iowa has agreed to terms with Washington.