When you compare ice-time numbers to the previous seven seasons of his NHL career, Thomas Vanek has seen a huge bump in his playing time.
When you compare them to the elite forwards in the NHL, Vanek isn’t necessarily getting the kind of time you would expect. But Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff, who already has expanded his star’s use in the first quarter of the season, is really starting to ride his red-hot winger.
Vanek played a season-high 23 minutes, 56 seconds in Thursday’s shootout win over Montreal – his most ice time since Jan. 11, 2011 – and scored two third-period goals to tie the game. That came two nights after Vanek played 20:15 in a loss at Ottawa.
Vanek had not played more than 20 minutes in back-to-back games since December 2008. Last year, in fact, his ice time was over 19 minutes just once in the final 32 games as he was clearly battling a string of injuries.
If Vanek hits the 20-minute mark in tonight’s game against the New York Islanders in Nassau Coliseum, it will mark the first time he has done that in three straight since October 2005. Back then, he was in games 3-4-5 of his career. Now, he’s a 29-year-old veteran leading the NHL in goals (10) and points (21).
“I’ve always said I’m happy with what I get,” Vanek said this week. “My ice time has been fine. I’m not going to demand more. You take whatever they give you and you go out there.”
Early in his career, “when I got 12-14 minutes, you take those and make the most of it. Now if it’s 22, then you deal with 22. Our line is getting plenty of ice time, plenty of chances. By upping the ice, it doesn’t always mean more production.”
Vanek has never averaged more than 17:21 per game for an entire season and his most even-strength time has been 14:01 (both figures came in 2010-11). So this year’s numbers of 19:47 and 15:02, respectively, are quite a boost.
Still, they don’t rate all that highly compared to other big-name players. Vanek is just 42nd in total ice time among NHL forwards and only 41st in even-strength time.
New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk is a runaway leader at 26:02 (no one else is over 21:52), and 35 others average at least 20.
Game situations often dictate ice time and there was quite an uproar after Sunday’s loss to Florida when Vanek’s 19:15 was nearly two minutes less than 35-year-old Jochen Hecht’s 21:08; Hecht doesn’t have a goal in 11 games. Ruff is in a situation where he’s getting little scoring outside of his top line of Vanek, Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville, so he knows Vanek’s ice time needs to be higher than it’s been in the past.
“There’s no optimal amount,” Ruff said. “I’ve tried really hard to put them in some situations that would really be to their advantage. I think that line has done a helluva job.”
The difference in some cases with Vanek’s ice time is the fact he has rarely killed penalties in his career. But Ruff is even trying to edge up that part of his game. Vanek totaled just 50 seconds of PK time the first five games this year, but has totaled 2:43 in his last four.
Still, there are inherent risks to more penalty-killing work. Vanek is pretty fearless and wouldn’t be adverse to stepping in front of a shot while killing. That, of course, is a big injury risk.
And the Sabres have to be concerned about the beating he’s taking in front of the net, especially on the power play. There were at least three blatant cross-checks to the back Vanek took Thursday night that were not called against the Canadiens, even as he was flattened on the play.
One issue about penalty killing is that Pominville and Hodgson do it regularly. So Vanek often needs to get ice time with other players immediately after Buffalo is short-handed while his linemates rest from work on that unit.
“I’ve been trying to stick him on right wing or left wing with another line right after a penalty kill to get him that extra shift,” Ruff said.
“Maybe 5-6 years ago, I was pressing more to get on it,” Vanek said. “But Lindy has been using me the shift after if I’m not PKing with a different line. It’s not something I’m overly concerned about.”
One thing that’s clear is Vanek and Ruff are concerned about finding a point of diminishing returns, where Vanek’s increased ice time leads to a sudden decrease in production.
“You’ve got to be careful,” Vanek said. “There’s a lot of games. If you overplay, you can get injured easier. There’s times you’ll ramp it up to using three lines and use some guys more often. Overall, I still like the idea of having four lines that can play.”
“Part of being dynamic as a line is they’ve had real good energy and their shifts have stayed short,” Ruff said. “They haven’t got caught on the ice very many times. They make great plays and they still look fresh.”
After canceling their scheduled practice in First Niagara Center, the Sabres left Buffalo on Friday morning in advance of the snowy weather and worked out for about an hour in the afternoon at the Coliseum. Defenseman Adam Pardy has been returned to Rochester on loan after Christian Ehrhoff came back into the lineup Thursday following a one-game absence.
Andrej Sekera is expected to return to the lineup tonight, meaning one of the six defensemen who played in the Montreal game could sit.
Another option would be for the Sabres to dress seven and use T.J. Brennan mostly as a power-play specialist. Patrick Kaleta (neck) also practiced fully and has been cleared to play.