Thomas Vanek a bright spot for Sabres
Winger has shot to win NHL scoring title on last-place team
James Patrick remembers standing on the Buffalo Sabres’ bench and marvelling at the play of a young Thomas Vanek.
The 2006-07 National Hockey League season was Patrick’s first as an assistant coach and he watched the Austrian-born left-winger post a career-best 84 points in his sophomore campaign, topping the Sabres with 43 goals and leading the league with a plus-47 rating.
"There were a lot more [goals on the rush] back then," Patrick, the former NHL blue-liner, said Wednesday on the phone from Sunrise, Fla., where Buffalo was preparing to face the Panthers. "A lot of teams now will just take away the rush by having four or five guys back [in the neutral zone or at their blue-line].
"[Vanek] still has that type of talent. He has proved to be a consistent scorer his whole career and I don’t see him tailing off for some time."
Vanek began the season with an eight-game points streak that included a pair of five-point performances. The 29-year-old has eight multi-point efforts in Buffalo’s first 20 starts and twice has ended a stretch of three games without a point with a two-point showing.
Vanek picked up two assists in Tuesday’s 2-1 win at Tampa Bay and entered Wednesday’s game with 27 points, trailing only Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, who have 30 apiece.
That makes the six-foot-two, 205-pound Vanek third in league scoring playing for a Sabres team that sits 29th in the 30-team NHL. No player on a last-place team has won the league scoring title since the NHL began awarding the Art Ross Trophy in the 1947-48 season.
The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, came the closest in the post-Original Six era, when he racked up 92 assists and 130 points for the Los Angeles Kings, who finished 22nd of 26 teams in 1994.
Four years earlier, Gretzky had 142 points for a Kings outfit that placed 15th in the-then 21-team NHL. In 1988, Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux recorded 168 points (70 goals, 98 assists) for a Penguins team that was 12th of 21 clubs.
1st Art Ross winner
Montreal’s Elmer Lach was the first Art Ross recipient in 1948 following a league-best 61-point performance when the Canadiens ended the season fifth in the six-team league. Chicago was fifth the next year when Roy Conacher of the Blackhawks topped all players with 68 points in 26 games.
"I don’t know how [the scoring race] is going to play out," Patrick said. "We're focusing on moving up from 29th."
Vanek has teased coaches and fans alike before, sitting among the NHL’s top 20 scorers at mid-season a year ago, only to fall out of the place, in part due to a shoulder injury. He also dealt with a sore chest and ankle sprain late in the season.
Over the years, Vanek has been the target of criticism, widely thought to be a lazy player to the point that there was a Twitter account dedicated to it (@LazyVanek26). Others would suggest he was not as energetic in the second half of last season and guilty of sloppy puck management, which led to a drop in ice time.
This season, Vanek is averaging 19 minutes 25 seconds a game, up from 17 minutes in 2011-12, and Patrick has seen a player that is stronger on the puck and more consistent.
Vanek is facing the opposition’s best shut-down defencemen on a nightly basis and has learned to better handle those situations, according to Patrick.
"I just think there’s more maturity to his game, and with maturity comes consistency," said the Sabres assistant coach. "There's times when he keeps things simpler. If there isn't [a play at the offensive blue-line] he'll get pucks deep. He doesn’t turn over as many pucks at the [opposition’s] blue-line.
"He’s a skilled player. He can score on the rush, he can score inside. I’ve been here seven years with him and he's one of those guys that can find a puck and pucks find him."
One day, it might lead to Vanek making NHL history.