(AP photo/David Duprey)

Primed and ready, but there are still questions (2)

When Buffalo Sabres number one center Derek Roy went down with a season-ending torn quad tendon two days before Christmas, 2010, many started looking ahead to “next season”. The Sabres were sitting well out of a playoff spot, with a 14-17-4 record, and Roy was one of the very few bright spots on a team playing just plain bad hockey. The Sabres were off to a terrible start, playing uninspired and making costly errors, and the injury might have well been the nail in the coffin.

Well, like the Italian Stallion in Rocky V, Thomas Vanek “didn’t hear no bell”.

So, for “primed and ready…” #2, I ask…

Should Thomas Vanek be the next captain of the Buffalo Sabres?

The talented, yet streaky Austrian (stallion?) had a decent start to the year. He had 13 goals and 12 assists in 35 games when Roy went out, but much like the previous season, Vanek seemed to leave you wanting, and expecting, more. Certainly, though, we couldn’t expect more out of Vanek with his centerman on the shelf now, right?

Van the man was on the back end of a seven game pointless streak at the time of Roy’s injury, and seemed lost. He was going through the motions. A man without a purpose.

Funny how things work out.

Vanek promptly put the team on his shoulders, putting up 23 points in the next 16 games, and 48 points in the final 47 games. There were only 13 games in the final 47 in which he failed to register a point, and over that stretch he was a +13. He looked like the Vanek of 2006-07, the year we saw a dependable, hard-working winger bury 43 goals and lead the NHL with a +47.

He did all of this with a “who’s who” of linemates, centermen, wingers who had no business playing center but did anyway, and centermen who had no business being centermen on this team, let alone on the top line (hint: his tin chest is hollow).

Now, before all of the Thomas Vanek haters out there threaten me with bodily harm, I realize he didn’t do all of this by himself. The team came together and responded. Drew Stafford came of age. Nathan Gerbe looked like the second coming of Martin St. Louis. Tyler Myers looked like, well, Tyler Myers. The Sabres were hotter than a fire cracker (thanks, RJ!), winning 29 of their final 47 games, and securing their ticket to the spring dance. Lindy had ‘em playin’ like a real team.

It can’t be overlooked, however, that Thomas Vanek came to play when it mattered most, too. The University of Minnesota alum was around when his team needed him most. He showed a maturation, leading by example with hard work, hustle and, doing what he does best, making (and finishing) plays.

He had perhaps the prettiest goal of the season on November 13th, against the Washington Capitals that all but summed up his year. He had the puck in the Capitals zone, tried to make something happen, and he and the puck were sort of swept out to center ice. With sheer determination, and seemingly at will, he scooped the puck up, swooped into the Washington zone and…(well, click on the above link to see John Carlson and Karl Alzner undressed like Jenna Jameson on a work night).

Denied once, not to happen again. Vanek seemed to say to all of his teammates, “if we want it bad enough, boys, all we have to do is take it”.

I have to admit I’ve always been a Thomas Vanek fan. I think he gets a bad rap. He looks lazy, but he really isn’t. He looks slow, but he has that extra gear that can leave even the best defenders standing still. He looks disinterested and sometimes frustrated, but no one (other than perhaps Ryan Miller) wants to win more than Thomas Vanek. He looks soft, but no one takes a bigger beating in front of the net, on a nightly basis, than Thomas Vanek. He, for lack of a better description, gets his ass kicked in while trying to screen the goalie, and stands in there tough. He also plays hurt more often than he should, and that sometimes affects his play.

I said Van would score 50 someday and, while the odds are slimming somewhat, I still believe he can, and will. I’m convinced that last year was a watershed year for Thomas. A turning point. He started off his career like gangbusters, had a little slip up, but last season put him back on course.

Actually, no.

It puts him on a different path. Still the sniper that has potted over 200 goals in 450+ games, he’ll do it as a team leader now, not just as a goal scorer.

The popular choice for captain of the Buffalo Sabres going forward is probably Robyn Regehr. While I think Regehr will be twice the player, they already made that mistake with Craig Rivet. No, it wasn’t all Rivet’s fault. He ran into injuries and was never fully healthy during his time in Buffalo. He was also a man with no ties to this city, this franchise or his teammates. He was slapped with the “C” before he even laced them up for a regular season game for the Sabres.

Don’t make that mistake again.

Guys like Paul Gaustad, Cody McCormick and Gerbe lead by example with their hard work and hustle. Myers, Stafford and Mike Weber are future leaders just coming into their own as players. New guys Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff and Regehr will put their stamp on this team soon enough, but none of these should, or needs to, wear the “C”.

That honor and respect should go to Thomas Vanek. Although he has been a top player for the Sabres for what seems like an eternity now, just watch Van the man take it to another level with the trust of his coaches, the backing of his teammates, and the love of his fans. He will strive to be the best player that he can possibly be, with the extra responsibility, and the team will only benefit from it. Vanek is ready, deserves it, and I think the best is yet to come.

Give it to him.




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Tags: Christian Ehrhoff Cody Mccormick Derek Roy Nathan Gerbe NHL Goal Scorers NHL Snipers Paul Gaustad Pretty NHL Goals Robyn Regehr Ryan Miller Sabres Captains Thomas Vanek

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