The Minnesota Wild set their expectations high when they signed Thomas Vanek as a free agent. While he may not have reached them in his first season with the club, it’s difficult to say he disappointed.
Vanek inked a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild on July 1, 2014 after spending the 2013-14 season with three teams. Despite the frequent change of addresses, he finished the campaign with 27 goals and 68 points but was not retained by the Montreal Canadiens.
Minnesota did not hesitate to bring Vanek on board, believing he’d help take some of burden to produce offensively off Zach Parise’s shoulders. The 31-year-old came through to an extent, scoring 21 times to finish tied for third on the team and reach the 20-goal plateau for 10th time in as many seasons since entering the National Hockey League.
Vanek added 31 assists for a total of 52 points in 80 games, marking the eighth campaign in which he eclipsed the half-century mark. That ranked him third on the team during the regular season, but the left wing disappeared in the playoffs as Minnesota was swept by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in 2013-14.
The fact Vanek scored 21 goals was impressive when you consider his miserable start to 2014-15. He didn’t net his first tally until November 1, the Wild’s 10th game of the season, and registered only two in his first 25 contests.
Vanek had a bit of a surge beginning on December 9, scoring four goals in a span of eight games, but never really broke out like Minnesota had hoped. He had a solid month of February, collecting four goals and five assists in 14 contests, before enjoying his best stretch of the season from March 8-23 – an eight-game point streak during which he notched six goals and four assists.
The Austrian faded after that, however, recording just two goals and as assist over his final eight contests. His struggles carried over to the postseason, as he managed to notch only four assists in 10 games.
Vanek’s troubles down the stretch could be attributed to his health. He was suffering from a pair of hernias in his left groin, for which he underwent surgery in June.
Now that Vanek has a season in Minnesota under his belt and is on his way to good health, the Wild are hopeful he can produce more offense. A return to the form from his early days in Buffalo would be welcome.
Selected with the fifth overall pick in the 2003 draft, Vanek made his NHL debut in 2005-06, registering 25 goals and 23 assists in 81 games with the Sabres. He scoffed at the so-called sophomore jinx by recording his best season to date in 2006-07, setting career highs of 43 goals and 84 points, and hit the 40-goal mark again two campaigns later.
Vanek remained productive throughout his tenure in Buffalo, but the Sabres elected to trade him during the final year of his contract rather than shell out the large amount of cash he would require to re-sign. After just 13 games of the 2013-14 season, Vanek was dealt to the New York Islanders for Matt Moulson and a pair of draft picks.
He thrived while playing on a line with John Tavares in New York, as he collected 17 goals and 44 points in 47 games. The Islanders were so pleased with his performance, they offered him a contract that reportedly was a seven-year deal worth $50 million.
Vanek turned down the offer in early February 2014 and was traded a month later to Montreal, where he had six goals and nine assists in 18 contests before adding five tallies and 10 points in 17 playoff games.
The Wild are counting on an 11th consecutive 20-goal season from Vanek in 2015-16. But if the veteran gets off to another sluggish start, he could find himself filling out change-of-address cards once again.