Vanek has been the NHL's best player through the first two-plus weeks. If a vote were taken today, he'd run away with the Hart Trophy. He's leading the NHL in scoring with 19 points. He has two five-point nights already, a first since the magical days of Pat LaFontaine and Alex Mogilny in the Aud.
He had one goal and set up two others against the Panthers on Sunday afternoon, giving him a point in every game he has played this season. He had the only goal in the embarrassing loss in Montreal. He dominated the Bruins with a hat trick and two assists, which left Bruins fans wondering why Boston can't get more players like him.
Rather ironic, wouldn't you say?
Vanek can do no wrong these days, but frightening for Buffalo is that it still hasn't translated into enough victories for anyone to believe the Sabres are going anywhere this season.
The latest debacle was a 4-3 loss to Florida after which Vanek was named the first star. He appeared on the verge of a breakdown afterward.
“It adds up to a losing record,” Vanek said. “Obviously, I gotta do more, too.”
And that's the problem. They can't ask for any more from Vanek, whose latest Who Else? moment came when he unloaded a bazooka after Jason Pominville's pretty feed between his legs for an early lead. You couldn't blame Jose Theodore for barely moving in the Florida net. How could he react to what he didn't see?
Later in the first period, Vanek stole the puck from defenseman Mike Weaver, made old friend Brian Campbell look foolish and fed Cody Hodgson for a tap-in. He left a soft, flat pass for Alex Sulzer in the second period that allowed the defenseman to tee up a slapper from inside the blue line to give Buffalo a 3-1 advantage.
And it wasn't enough.
Vanek is carrying this team, obviously, but Vanek is not God, as some would argue at the foot of Jim Kelley Way. The law of averages is bound to catch up to him at some point when the lift becomes too heavy. He's playing Hart Trophy hockey for a team that has shown little interest in joining him for a playoff run.
“He's playing all world right now, and that's doing nothing but helping us,” winger Drew Stafford said. “It's just unfortunate that guys like myself aren't finding the back of the net.”
Vanek's stick will eventually cool. He had a terrific start last season before disappearing with one goal in January. He had four goals in a 31-game stretch over 10-plus weeks, leading Sabres fans to file bogus charges of first-degree laziness and beg for him to be traded. His problem rarely has been effort.
The Sabres' top line has scored 18 of their 27 goals. Vanek was involved in 19 of them. Let's agree that he can't keep up the torrid pace. Opponents will make adjustments. Vanek will have an off night, a bad week, a prolonged slump. And then what?
The Sabres are getting almost zero production from their other three lines. Stafford and Jochen Hecht haven't scored all season. They switched lines Sunday, with Hecht incomprehensibly getting bumped to the second line and producing his eighth 0-0-0 in nine games.
Newcomer Steve Ott has been quiet since the opener. Marcus Foligno, who played so well with Stafford and Tyler Ennis at the end of the last season, has one goal. Ennis has scored twice, one thanks to a feed from Vanek. Rookie Mikail Grigorenko has scored one goal while trying to get his skates under him.
An optimist would suggest the rest of the Sabres will come around. For now, Buffalo is little more than a one-line team. The Sabres showed their true potential in Boston but failed to carry the same spunk into Montreal. They looked good for a while Sunday before falling apart.
Buffalo had numerous chances to bury Florida as it did Boston but allowed the Panthers to hang around in a 3-2 game, or one-shot from a tie game and two shots from the Sabres donating another two points. Sure enough, Peter Mueller scored late in the second period, and Campbell slipped off the blue line and beat his former team in the third.
What's more mystifying than Buffalo's 3-5-1 record is Vanek's ice time. This is real simple: He's their top forward, so he should be on the ice more than anyone else. I was bracing for Chan Gailey to emerge from the Sabres' dressing room and say Vanek was tired from all that production in the first two periods.
Lindy Ruff has argued that Vanek doesn't kill penalties, which is true. Vanek has been on the ice for all of 2:38 with the Sabres a man down. Nearly half came late in the game Sunday with the Sabres trailing by a goal. It doesn't explain why Hecht played three more minutes at even strength and Foligno nearly four more minutes than Vanek did.
Vanek is playing his eighth season under Ruff. You would think he has learned enough about defense to play in all situations. Wayne Gretzky was never known for his defense, either, but he scored 73 short-handed goals in his career.
And while Vanek is not Gretzky and today's NHL is much different than in the high-flying 1980s, the point remains the same. Vanek entered the game Sunday ranked 58th among NHL forwards in ice time with 19 minutes, 13 seconds. If he's not killing penalties, he should have enough energy to take a few extra shifts per period.
Great players can help any way they can. The idea is getting them on the ice as much as possible. The more TOI, the better Buffalo's chance of winning.
It's simple math.
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Vanek's Hart start being wasted
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