Buffalo Sabres\' Thomas Vanek (26) celebrates with Paul Gaustad (28). (CPimages/AP/H. Rumph Jr.)
The 22-year-old Austrian winger has a look of disgust on his face when it's even brought up. Despite a 25-goal rookie campaign in 81 regular-season games, he was a healthy scratch for a big portion of last season's playoff run by the Buffalo Sabres, and it stung.
"It was hard, obviously," says Vanek, Buffalo's first pick, fifth overall, in the 2003 NHL entry draft. "You play all the regular-season games and you feel like you helped the team get there. It was obviously disappointing but it's in the past now, I can't change that now.
"This is a new year and I'm hopefully going to prove them wrong this year come the playoffs."
Head coach Lindy Ruff, last season's recipient of the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, says Vanek's play had dipped come playoff time so he doesn't regret sitting him.
"The only thinking was that we felt we had other guys that were playing better," said Ruff. "I said it at the time, I don't find it uncommon that a young guy may struggle in the playoffs and get caught up in the pace of the game. And I think overall conditioning, with the amount of time he had played probably hurt him at that point. He wasn't able to catch up to the other guys."
When asked how the decision was explained to him last spring, Vanek had a simpler answer.
"I don't know, everyone was healthy and I was just kind of the odd man out," said Vanek.
That was Vanek's way of saying, "Let's stop talking about this." Fair enough. After all, the best part of last spring's disappointment is that he's come back this fall with a vengeance. He tops the NHL-leading Sabres with 15 goals in 22 games and is second on the team with 28 points.
"The biggest difference is just a year experience," explains Vanek. "I learned a lot of things in my rookie year and it carried into this year."
Ruff says it goes a little deeper than that. The Sabres challenged him in the off-season and Vanek responded.
"We asked him to make a big commitment in the conditioning part of it that would allow him to play a lot better game," said Ruff. "And you have to give him credit, he came into camp in absolutely fabulous shape. His weight right now is about 20 pounds lighter than he used to be. And he's stronger.
"So you figure it out," continued Ruff. "You've got more energy, there's less downtime in shifts, that's made a big difference, combined with the strength and quickness he put in. It's made him a lot better player."
The high-flying Sabres, with the NHL's best record at 18-3-1, host divisional rival Montreal on Friday night. The Canadiens (12-5-3) better not get too comfortable if they get up a few goals.
The Sabres have come back seven times already this season from two-goal deficits, the last being Wednesday night in a 7-4 win over Toronto and the first time being Oct. 6 against the Habs when Montreal led 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2 but lost 5-4 in a shootout to the NHL's most explosive team.
"Whether we're down a couple or up a couple there's no quit in this team," said Vanek. "There's good chemistry in here, we have four good lines, six good defencemen and two great goalies. It's been fun."