MONTREAL – Thomas Vanek has always been good at hockey. Always. From youth games to juniors to college to the pros, he’s been a standout on every team for which he’s played.
But there’s something different going on now. He’s making the game look like child’s play. In fact, it’s almost exactly like he’s back to his childhood.
While growing up in Austria, Vanek quickly outgrew his country’s hockey system. He played on teams with 16- and 18-year-olds when he was 12 and 13. He dominated so much that he had to leave.
He moved to Canada when he was 14 so he could find competition, and he dominated there, too, recording 76 goals and 112 points in 40 games.
The Buffalo Sabres’ high-scoring left winger isn’t quite on that pace this season, but he’s not far off. Vanek has 15 points in his opening six games, numbers that made the NHL name him the Third Star of January on Friday.
He’s making everything look easy.
“Even when things look easy, it’s never easy,” Vanek said after practice in Bell Centre, where the Sabres visit the Montreal Canadiens this afternoon.
A return to Austria may have helped Vanek recapture that childhood dominance. He played 11 games overseas during the lockout, putting up five goals and 15 points, but the style of play was more important than the numbers.
European rinks are 210 feet long and 98 feet wide, much bigger than the 200-by-85 that are customary in the NHL. Vanek needed to be more creative to get closer to the net. Creativity is helping to carry him with the Sabres.
Twice during Buffalo’s 7-4 victory over Boston on Thursday night, Vanek bounced the puck off the boards and danced around a defender to retrieve the carom. The first led to an assist, the other to his third goal in a five-point night.
“A lot of guys can make plays at slow speeds, but he makes some of the best plays when he’s moving full speed or the play’s moving quickly,” center Cody Hodgson said. “That’s really when you see some of the brilliant plays he makes.”
Vanek entered Friday’s schedule as the top point-producer in the NHL, and he ranked second in goals (six) and assists (nine). He’s had two five-point games, becoming the first player since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux (Pittsburgh, 1992-93) to accomplish the feat in his team’s first seven games, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
“It would be more fun if we had a better record,” said Vanek, whose club is 3-3-1 after the comeback victory in Boston. “It’s probably not where we want to be, but at the same time it was a good game for us. We just have to build off at that.”
The 29-year-old has been extremely calm during his chart-topping start.
He’s experienced hot and cold streaks during his eight seasons in Buffalo, and he knows ice can follow the fire. Still, his efforts have been pulse-quickening.
He’s been physical, knocking down players to start scoring plays. He’s been tough, withstanding whacks in front to deflect pucks into the net. He’s been deft, making on-the-tape passes while skating on the rush or flying through air after getting tripped. He’s been accurate, scoring on 21.4 percent of his shots and burying one-timers.
“He’s playing at a high level, but it’s just what Thomas has always been capable of doing,” said goaltender Ryan Miller, who has been Vanek’s teammate since they played in Rochester in 2004. “It’s not a surprise for anybody.”
Vanek has been quick to credit his linemates, Hodgson and captain Jason Pominville, for making him look like an MVP.
“I was in a good spot for a lot of the plays,” Vanek said. “I’ve made plays like that before, but the puck just wasn’t going in for whoever was shooting it. I think right now it gets magnified because whenever I’m passing guys are scoring and I’m getting credit for an assist. As far as that, I just take them as it comes.
“I think the biggest thing as a line is we talk so much – in practice, off the ice, on the ice, between shifts. I think that’s a big difference. When you can communicate, be honest with your linemates, it’s just going to help us out, and right now it’s going well.”