Vanek lands in Minnesota
By Chad Graff
St. Paul Pioneer Press
ST. PAUL -- After a year of speculation and anticipation, Thomas Vanek became a member of the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday when he signed a three-year contract worth $19.5 million.
Vanek, 30, was one of the top free agents in a class regarded as thin, and chose the Wild about 100 minutes into the NHL’s free agency period, which started at 11 a.m.
He brings a history of scoring to a team that advanced to the second round of the playoffs despite ranking 24th in the NHL in regular-season scoring with 2.43 goals a game.
“Scoring goals is a big part of winning games, and he’s a game-breaker,” Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. “The things he does well are things that we need.”
Since entering the league in 2005, Vanek has scored at least 20 goals in every season, including the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign. His 277 goals since 2005 are eighth most in the league, and his 113 power-play goals in that span rank third.
He scored 27 goals among 68 points for the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens last season, and added five goals and five assists in 17 playoff games with the Canadiens.
But he received plenty of criticism for his play in the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers, never getting more than 14 minutes of ice time in any of the series’ six games.
“It certainly wasn’t my best one, I can tell you that,” Vanek said. “But I’ll take the blame for that. It’s not always easy moving around and being away from my family like I have been. But those are not excuses. Those are just factors that factor into me. Family is big on me. It was tough at the end.”
Vanek had long been linked to the Wild, largely because of Vanek’s desire to return to Minnesota, where he won an NCAA championship in 2003 as a Gopher and lives in the offseason. Because of that interest, Vanek accepted the Wild’s offer for fewer years and less money than other teams were willing to offer, including the Islanders.
“My top priority was to sign here,” Vanek said.
Vanek reportedly turned down a seven-year extension worth more than $50 million from Buffalo last fall because he wanted to test the free agent market. Because of that, the Sabres traded him to the New York Islanders, where he again turned down a maximum contract. In March, he was dealt to the Canadiens, where he recorded 15 points in 18 regular-season games.
As he was leaving Montreal, he immediately set his sights on Minnesota. On the drive to Stillwater, where he has spent his offseasons even while playing with the Sabres, Vanek called Wild defenseman Keith Ballard, a former Gophers teammate.
After the initial call, Vanek and Ballard talked almost every day. Ballard relayed messages from Vanek to other Wild teammates, who agreed Vanek would be a perfect fit in Minnesota.
“It wasn’t so much persuasion as it was just answering questions and letting him know from a players’ standpoint that we feel we have a real good team and we all felt he can be a real good fit for us,” Ballard said.
Added Vanek: “I didn’t need much of a sales pitch.”
What he did need was an agreement with the Wild. While Minnesota wanted to add a goal-scoring, right-shot forward like Vanek, they weren’t willing to offer the type of long-term contract other teams were willing to give him.
Last week, Fletcher informed Vanek’s agent, Steve Bartlett, that they wanted Vanek on a three-year deal.
“I don’t know all the particulars,” Fletcher said, “but it’s pretty evident that Thomas turned down more money and more term to sign here.”
Vanek said that’s because he wanted to return to Minnesota, and because of improvements the Wild have made the past two seasons.
“That’s why I was willing to sign for three years and not worry about going higher,” he said. “I have a lot of belief in myself, that I can play for another seven, eight years.”
Much of Vanek’s success comes from in front of the net. He’s not the fastest skater and does not posses the hardest shot, but his ability to deflect pucks past goalies is elite.
“He scores goals,” Ballard said. “I don’t think we were good enough in front of the net last year, consistently, and I think he’s one of the best net-front guys in the NHL. He’s got such a good stick as far as tipping pucks, deflecting pucks and he’s got that knack around the net that some guys have, some guys don’t.”
Vanek presumably will be slotted as the second-line left wing behind Zach Parise on the depth chart and could play alongside right wing and good friend Jason Pominville, with whom he spent eight seasons in Buffalo.
“I think everyone kind of knew it was going to happen, but until it’s done and finalized you never know,” Pominville said. “Now that it is done, everyone is excited.”
Especially Vanek, who spent last season on three different teams answering questions about his impending free agency — and well-known desire to return to Minnesota. On Tuesday, after turning down more security and more money elsewhere, he did.
“About a year ago, when I made my decision to go to free agency, this
was definitely a team that I had in mind,” Vanek said. “For it to come true today, I’ve still not come to terms with it. I’m extremely thrilled to be a part of the Wild and of a group like this. I’m just happy.”
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.