Wild hope Vanek ready to fill up net
By Chad GraffSt. Paul Pioneer Press Before his first preseason game in St. Paul three weeks ago, Thomas Vanek sat alone at his new stall in the Minnesota Wild's locker room. Normally not one to get all sentimental, Vanek took a few minutes to him...
By Chad Graff
St. Paul Pioneer Press
Before his first preseason game in St. Paul three weeks ago, Thomas Vanek sat alone at his new stall in the Minnesota Wild’s locker room.
Normally not one to get all sentimental, Vanek took a few minutes to himself, looking at the names on the locker stalls surrounding him, at the locker room that will be home the next three years.
A red Wild sweater with his name on the back hung from his stall.
Vanek felt two emotions that have been missing for a while: nerves and a sense of belonging.
Finally, playing for his fourth team in 12 months, Vanek says he’s found his place. The 30-year-old left wing from Austria signed a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild on July 1 to play in the state he has called home the past dozen years. But with that came nerves he wasn’t accustomed to.
Another new team means another first impression as he enters his 10th season in the NHL.
As the Wild open their regular season against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night, the usually laid-back player expects butterflies as he skates onto the Xcel Energy Center ice.
“For sure,” Vanek admitted. “But I’m looking forward to it. I know how great the fans in Minnesota are. To play in front of them again after a lot of years gone will be exciting, and I’ll be nervous. But hopefully I’ll get over it and past it pretty quickly.”
Vanek’s first game with the Wild has been a long time coming.
After starring at the University of Minnesota for two seasons, from 2002-04, Vanek built an solid NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres, where he played alongside Jason Pominville, who the Wild traded for a year and a half ago.
Vanek, who is 6 feet 2, 210 pounds, has made his place in the NHL as a scorer. A 20-plus goal scorer every year since entering the league in 2005, he’s the kind of player the Wild have lacked in recent years.
Because of that and Vanek’s Minnesota connections - he met his wife Ashley at U and lived in Stillwater every summer while playing for Buffalo - Vanek was long predicted to sign with the Wild this summer.
“It was kind of written in the sky that he was going to end up here,” said Pominville, Vanek’s close friend.
Whenever Pominville bumped into fans during his first year in Minnesota, they didn’t ask how Pominville was fitting in or how he liked Minnesota. Instead, “they were like, ‘Is Vanek coming here?’ “ Pominville said.
Now that he’s here, there’s plenty of pressure on Vanek to do what he’s known for: scoring goals.
The Wild ranked 16th in the league last season in goals, averaging 2.43 a game.
“His scoring is a big part,” Pominville said.
Wild forward Thomas Vanek gets set for the next drill during the team’s training camp at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Saturday, September 20,
Wild forward Thomas Vanek gets set for the next drill during the team’s training camp at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on Saturday, September 20, 2014. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
“He’s so good in front of the net. Every time he touches the puck, something good comes out of it, whether it’s because of his playmaking ability, his scoring ability or his shot.”
Despite scoring 27 goals in the regular season playing for three different teams in 2013-14, Vanek was criticized for his play in the playoffs with the Montreal Canadiens, and his ice time shrunk as the games grew in importance.
It raised a couple of questions as he entered free agency: Was he dedicated to the defensive zone? And, did he still have the speed to be a prolific scorer?
Those doubts cost him money. Last season, Vanek turned down long-term contracts with Buffalo and the New York Islanders that were far more lucrative than the deal he signed with Minnesota.
“I made a decision last summer that whatever happened, I wanted to hit free agency once in my career,” Vanek said. “I stuck to it, and I’m happy I did.”
For the all the criticism Vanek took in the playoffs last season, Yeo said in training camp he saw a receptive player willing to put in the work.
“I think we knew and expected the skill level,” Yeo said. “I think his playmaking ability is one thing that’s been very pleasant just as far as some of the plays he’s able to make in the game. The thing I’m most pleased about is how he’s starting to grasp our system and how he’s really tried to buy into that.”
Vanek skated with Wild teammates over the summer and went through training camp with them. And as he looked at his home jersey hanging at his stall before that first preseason game, he paused at the magnitude of his situation. After bouncing between three teams last year, he was finally home.
“After last year moving around and always having that uncertainty in the back of my head of, ‘Am I staying here, am I moving on?’ ... It was tough,” he said. “You try to block it out, but I’m only human, so it sticks in your mind. Knowing that I’ll be here and be happy here goes a long ways.”