In the sporting world, we fans often put unfair expectations and labels on younger athletes who play for our favorite teams. These expectations either cause the athlete in question to rise to the occasion and show the world he's the real deal, or wilt under the pressure and eventually fade into the sunset.
For Buffalo's $50 million man, winger Thomas Vanek, it was a little of both last season.
After the Sabres lost locker room leaders and top scorers Daniel Briere and Chris Drury, Vanek, coming off a 46 goal season, was the target of the rebuilding Edmonton Oilers. So the Sabres, feeling no other choice was available, matched the huge offer to their 22 year old winger.
To start the season, Vanek did not seem to enjoy the new-found pressure that accompanied the rich deal. Scoring just 17 goals and 36 points by February 10th, Vanek seemed to be collapsing under the weight of expectation. Fans weren't happy with his performance and he certainly didn't look like a kid out there; rather, the mold of a beaten man.
However, with the Sabres in the thick of the race for the final spot in the East in early February, Vanek awoke. Exploding for 19 goals, including four hat tricks, in 27 games, he nearly helped drag the Sabres into the final spot in the playoffs.
Watching the Sabres on most nights, I noticed a few changes in Vanek's game. When he lit the lamp 46 times in 2006-2007, his bread and butter move was to plant himself into the net and collect tip in's and garbage goals. For most of 2007-2008, Vanek was trying to perform like a $50 million player: trying to carry the puck in, make the fancy move and create goals by himself. He looked like a kid trying to do too much.
As the season grew older, Vanek went back to what he did best: planting himself in the slot. He had several nice tip in's, picked up rebounds and was consistently fed in the slot. He looked like himself again.
While the circumstances in which we locked up Vanek to the long term weren't particularly ideal, I'm glad we kept him. He's a big kid with solid skating ability and a guy with 50 goal potential. He seemed to have his confidence back towards the end of the season and looks poised to have a big 2008-2009 season.
It seems as though those who collapse under incredible pressure can will themselves up and accept it after all.