At 23-and-a-half, he had the world by the tail. Six months later, his family’s finances secure for generations to come, the world of hockey is spinning him by the tail, in a tale of too much too soon for a player who has yet to complete his third NHL season.
On Jan. 19, Thomas Vanek will turn 24. And try as he might to live up to the pressure of a seven-year pact worth $50 million, nothing on the ice is going his way.
You know, it’s funny. When Vanek signed his long-term deal, a lifelong supporter of the team suggested to me “a contract like this could kill his career.” Sadly, her foreshadowing has been accurate so far.
On pace for 24 goals, he had 43 a year ago. On pace for eight power play goals, he had 15 a year ago, his front-of-net presence a mere fraction of what it used to be. Nine multi-goal games last season, he has none in 2007-08. A catalyst in the Sabres run to the 2007 Presidents’ Trophy, his team appears likely to miss the 2008 post-season altogether.
And therein lies the problem. It’s his team, and it shouldn’t be. It’s not like he’s wearing the ‘C’, but what did you think was going to happen in wake of Buffalo matching (which they had to do) the Oilers’ ridiculous offer sheet? Of course, all the attention would be on him. From fans, media and opposition players alike.
When one looks at the chances he gets, and the raw ability he has, there’s no doubt he should become a consistent 35-plus goal-scorer for the better part of his career.
But in reality, he had very little chance of succeeding this season.
Sabres fans are reminded with each passing loss that someone in the organization (Darcy Regier, Larry Quinn or Tom Golisano) botched things royally by letting Chris Drury walk. Daniel Briere they could have lived without, but not Drury.
With Tim Connolly having yet to return to the level he was at prior to being clobbered by Ottawa’s Peter Schaefer in the 2005 playoffs (a condition also partially due to other nagging injuries) and Derek Roy having not yet matured into top-line status (will he ever, despite contract projections to the contrary?), this team does not have a No. 1 center.
There aren’t many young wingers who have been able to operate at an all-star level without the aid of a somewhat dynamic playmaker. (Yes, Roy was Vanek’s centerman for most of last year, too, but he did so as the team’s No. 3 center, therefore having far more room to operate.)
So until management/ownership rectifies that problem, Vanek has only one ally, that being time.
Unfortunately for him, sports fans are notoriously impatient. And Sabres management has been just the opposite. Patience cost them quality players to free agency over the past two summers. It will cost them dearly again if they don’t lock up Brian Campbell.
And without shaking things up via a trade prior to the Feb. 26 deadline, they run the risk of quickly falling back into pre-lockout mode, when they missed the playoffs for three straight years.