Vanek enjoyed two absurdly successful seasons playing college hockey for the Minnesota Golden Gophers, including scoring the game-winning goals in both the semifinal and final of the NCAA tournament, to clinch the National Title.
He would end up leaving school early, a top 10, first round draft pick, as one of the most decorated Gophers in school history.
That success still continued when Vanek joined Buffalo’s minor league club in Rochester and finished second on the team in scoring and first among AHL rookies with 42 goals and 68 points.
So it was no surprise when Vanek made the final jump to hockey’s highest level of competition that he was able to flourish.
In his first season, Vanek had a tremendous year playing in a potent offensive lineup that allowed him freedom and opportunities to score. As a rookie, Vanek notched a very respectable 25 goals.
The following season, Vanek rode the team’s success to a career year finishing 2006-07 with 43 goals and 84 points.
At this point, everything was pointing up for Vanek and the Sabres as the sky was the limit for the future.
However, the summer of 2007 broke the chain of success for Vanek and the Sabres.
First, the team was trounced from the playoffs after being arguably the best team during the regular season. Then, high profile scorers Danny Briere and Chris Drury left town via free agency neglecting to sign offers with Buffalo in the process.
After this, the focus turned to Thomas Vanek who had become a restricted free agent after his rookie contract expired at the conclusion of the season.
After nearly half a decade of success, many cracks began to show in Vanek’s armor. The Sabres were elated with his performance over the past two years, but only 12 points in 26 playoff games became a little worrisome.
Nevertheless, there was really no indication that the Sabres wouldn’t re-sign Vanek especially after two of the team’s best scorer’s skipped town.
Then came the offer sheet from the Edmonton Oilers.
In what has been criticized as a dirty, but fair move, the Oilers offered Vanek an outrageous seven-year $50 million contract knowing full well the Sabres would have to match the offer.
This put Buffalo and its GM Darcy Reiger in a tough predicament. With two top scorers leaving town, he could not afford to let Vanek go even if it did mean four first-round draft picks in compensation.
In the end, Buffalo matched the offer but Vanek has never been quite the same player he was since signing this huge contract.
Vanek was able to net 40 goals last season, but overall, his impact has been severely limited while making the big bucks.
What’s the problem then?
The problem with Vanek is two-fold: First, the Sabres have mismanaged him over the past few years. And second, Vanek is one of those stars who enter the NHL already close to his ceiling as a player.
As far as the Sabres treatment goes, it is really unfair for Vanek to be making over seven million dollars a season. And it’s made all the much worse that the Sabres don’t treat him like someone making that kind of money.
Just take a look at the other forwards in the NHL who are making seven million or more:
Iginla, Staal, Richards, Gomez, Gaborik, Drury, Spezza, Crosby, Malkin, Heatley, Thorton, Lecavlier and Ovechkin.
Together, these players are averaging nearly a point-per-game and racking up the ice-time to boot. Taking out over-paid and aging veterans like Gomez and Drury only makes this lists stats all the more impressive.
The point is, Vanek is wasting away on the Sabres roster, playing less than 17 minutes a night while these other stars average over 20 minutes.
The result is that Vanek is heading for a career low in every statistical category with only 18 goals and 39 points thus far through 57 games.
And the other problem is, nobody is really sure if Vanek truly has the ability to be a star in the NHL and it seems the Sabres are afraid to give him the minutes his contract deserves, lest the team has to dish out more money when that expires.
To be blunt though, Vanek simply cannot be making the money he is making and not show what he can do. How terribly frustrating must it be to have so much success so early and then be treated like just another second-line winger?
Still, there is the fear that perhaps Vanek has maxed out his potential, being the type of player who enters the league with a very good set of offensive skills, but never one to really improve much over his career.
And it’s that possibility that has many Sabres fans up in arms. Vanek will always be able to find the net and it is almost assured that he will be a consistent 30-goal scorer for the next five years, but nobody is particularly happy about his contract eating up such a large amount of the team’s cap space.
Vanek’s game offers little else beside a decent scoring touch to bestow such a large contract to him, but that is the deal the Sabres agreed to.
Now, both player and team don’t seem too excited about the future.
Vanek would undoubtedly like more minutes and the opportunity to live up to his contract, but the Sabres don’t seem to have faith in his overall game to justify such treatment.
Perhaps those four first round draft picks from Edmonton would have been better?