ST. PAUL, Minn. – Thomas Vanek had Minnesota high on his list from the start.
He’s not the first NHL free agent to do so, and the way the Wild have been progressing he probably won’t be the last.
Vanek agreed Tuesday to a three-year, $19.5 million contract, giving an improving lineup a potentially prolific scorer and allowing the Austrian-born left wing to settle in an area he has made his home since college.
Two summers ago, the Wild turned heads by landing left wing Zach Parise and defenceman Ryan Suter. Now they’ve added another top-market free agent in Vanek, whose 277 goals are the eighth-most in the NHL since his debut nine years ago.
“What intrigued me the most was obviously with Zach signing here and Suter signing here, this team is getting really good and is very good,” Vanek said, adding: “I’m extremely thrilled to be a part of the Wild and of a group like this.”
According to a person with knowledge of the contract who spoke to on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce the value, Vanek will make $5.5 million this season, $6.5 million in 2014-15 and $7.5 million in 2015-16.
Vanek lives with his family in Stillwater, an idyllic riverfront suburb a few miles from Xcel Energy Center. He played two seasons at the University of Minnesota before turning pro with Buffalo and called winning the national championship with the Gophers the “best thing” he’s done in his hockey career.
“To be a part of the Wild now and go after the big prize and having a chance to do it in Minnesota is beyond my wildest dreams,” Vanek said.
Vanek was the fifth overall pick by the Sabres in 2003. He had two 40-goal seasons for them, but last fall he was traded to the New York Islanders, who later dealt him to Montreal. He totalled 27 goals over 78 games with the three teams. In the playoffs with the Canadiens, he had five goals and five assists in 17 games.
Vanek’s production slipped at times this season, and he was even benched briefly during the post-season, but the Wild weren’t deterred.
“It certainly wasn’t my best one I can tell you that. But I’ll take the blame for that,” Vanek said. “It’s not always easy moving around and being away from my family.”
Vanek will play on either the first or second line, with some combination of Parise, Jason Pominville, Charlie Coyle, Mikko Koivu and Mikael Granlund likely filling the other top five forward spots. Vanek’s 113 power-play goals since his 2005-06 rookie season are the third-most in the NHL in that span. The 6-foot-2, 217-pound Vanek has the type of finishing ability around the net the Wild have lacked.
“There’s no question that we do have some skill, but we don’t score goals easily,” coach Mike Yeo said.
Vanek turned down seven-year offers, including from the Islanders. When Pominville was traded to the Wild last year, Vanek was the one who encouraged his long-time Sabres teammate.
“He loved Buffalo a lot, which I did too,” Vanek said. “But I told him, ‘You’ll like it there. There’s a lot of good fans.’ And after a week or so, he called me and said, ‘You know what? You’re right. I do like it here a lot.'”
Unlike in the other major pro sports, Minnesota can be a destination market in the NHL because of its hockey roots. The addition of Parise and Suter and the Wild’s advancement to the Western Conference semifinals this spring were further steps toward NHL prominence.
“People recognize the talent that you have. So we’re getting better. We’re in a good place,” general manager Chuck Fletcher said.
Defenceman Clayton Stoner (Anaheim), left wing Matt Moulson (Buffalo) and centre Cody McCormick (Buffalo) departed the Wild as unrestricted free agents. Others in that category not expected back are left wing Dany Heatley and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. Defenceman Nate Prosser could return for the right price.
The Wild also signed defenceman Stu Bickel (one year) and centre Brett Sutter (two years) to two-way contracts, adding depth with players who’ll likely bounce between AHL affiliate Iowa and the parent club.
The 27-year-old Sutter, the son of Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter, has played in 54 career NHL games with Calgary and Carolina. Bickel, a native of Chanhassen who played one season for the Gophers, played in 67 games for the New York Rangers over a two-year span. He spent last season in the AHL.
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.