BUFFALO, N.Y. – One of the first Sabres off the ice after practice Thursday, Thomas Vanek sat patiently at his locker, waiting for the reporters and cameras to gather around.
Slipping on his Buffalo Sabres’ cap, Vanek got up and eagerly anticipated the first question. “OK, let’s go,” he said with a smile.
What last year appeared to be a chore or something to endure – Vanek would occasionally answer questions with his arms crossed in defiance if he was in a scoring slump – has become an easy part of his routine a month into this season.
The Sabres (8-2-2), who host the Atlanta Thrashers on Friday, are riding high, sitting atop the Northeast Division standings and second in the Eastern Conference a year after missing the playoffs. And Vanek has bounced back, too, leading the way by getting off to a hot start with a league-leading 11 goals in 12 games.
“Yeah, it’s good. It’s a little bit different,” he said. “Usually, I’m on the opposite side where I start a little slow and then heat up after a while. But yeah, I’m happy about it.”
Just don’t ask him for an explanation.
Other than getting married this summer, the Sabres fourth-year star forward insists his outlook and objectives haven’t changed. And like many of the NHL’s pure goal-scorers, Vanek would rather chalk up his performance to good fortune than anything else. To say otherwise would, perhaps, tempt fate and bring on a slump.
Vanek knows all too well what that feels like. Despite scoring a team-leading 36 goals last year, Vanek struggled with consistency, which led to a maddening cycle of frustration for a player who desperately wanted to meet the high expectations that came with eye-popping seven-year US$50-million contract he signed in the off-season.
“I think that’s what happened last year,” he said. “I wasn’t scoring, the team was losing games. You bottle that up together, and it’s a lot of frustration.”
He’s scored in eight of Buffalo’s 12 games, has two game-winners and not gone more than two games without a goal.
That’s quite a departure from a player who didn’t score his 11th goal until his 34th game last season and seven times endured goal droughts of four games or more, including one that lasted seven games.
It didn’t help that Vanek was thrust into the role of being the team’s workhorse after the Sabres lost the bulk of their offence with the free-agent departures of co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere. Vanek’s new contract only added to the burden on his shoulders, a year after he produced career bests with 43 goals and 41 assists.
The contract was the result of the Edmonton Oilers’ bid to lure Vanek from Buffalo by making him an offer they believed the Sabres wouldn’t match. The Sabres did match the offer, making Vanek the highest-paid forward in franchise history.
Vanek insists the contract didn’t affect him, though he’ll acknowledge he had difficulty adjusting to his new role as the team’s top offensive star and facing opponents’ top defensive units.
“I think that was the learning curve,” he said. “Obviously, I know the expectations were higher and they’re still high. And that’s fair. And I expected that. But (money) had nothing to do with it.”
Buffalo’s 2003 first-round draft pick, Vanek has been a prolific scorer since he relocated from his native Austria at 14 to play in the United States.
As a freshman, he led Minnesota to the NCAA title in 2003. Since breaking into the NHL in 2005, his 115 goals are tied for 10th in the league, according to STATS.
Vanek’s inconsistencies last year didn’t bother or surprise coach Lindy Ruff.
“I don’t know if there’s any young player that didn’t have to go through that,” said Ruff, who credited Vanek’s improved production to how much better he’s playing defensively by creating turnovers. “Part of Thomas’ frustration is he let it get to him too much. He became extremely frustrated and that hurt his play.”
What’s important is how he has rebounded.
“When you face adversity, you have to work through it, and that makes you stronger,” Ruff said. “He’s grown up.”