The Sioux Falls Stampede was a fledgling team in the United States Hockey League when it scooped up 15-year old Thomas Vanek from the North American Hockey League’s Rochester Junior Americans. It’s not that the NAHL wasn’t good enough for him; it was simply a matter of his new high school’s issues with his visa. Instead, the slick young winger made the trip to Sioux Falls, scored 80 goals and 153 points in 108 regular season games, then spent two seasons at the U of M, scored another 57 goals and 113 points, won a national championship, got drafted fifth overall in arguably the best draft class ever and cemented himself as the most successful and well-known former Stampede player ever.
Then Vanek turned pro with the Buffalo Sabres. With the lockout eventually consuming the entire 2004-05 NHL season, the Austria native spent the season back in Rochester with the Sabres’ top minor league affiliate, potting 42 goals and 68 points in 74 games while adding two goals and five points in the Americans’ short-lived five-game playoff series. Vanek, like fellow star Wild teammates Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Jason Pominville, kicked off his NHL career the following season, outperforming them all with 25 goals, 48 points and a negative-11 rating in 81 games. In fact, he has yet to score fewer than 25 goals in a season since, scoring over 30 in four different seasons and at least 40 twice. In total, the former Gopher has scored 277 goals and 556 points in 663 games, adding 20 goals and 30 points in 53 postseason appearances.
Since the end of the 2004-05 lockout, only seven other players have scored more regular season goals than Vanek, and only two have more on the man advantage (Vanek has 113 to be exact). Now, class, what always seems to plague the Wild throughout the season? Not including the injury bug, that would be goal scoring and power play production.
Last year, Pominville led the club with 30 goals and 60 points in 82 games. The next closest leader in goals and points was Parise with 29 and 56, respectively, in 67 games. Combined with Koivu and Suter, the quartet managed 26 power play goals and 72 total power play points – that’s 64.4 percent and 54.5 percent of the Wild’s total power play goal and point production. Granted, that’s mainly Minnesota’s first power play unit, however, that number comes to 68.8 percent and 59.8 percent when defenseman Jared Spurgeon’s contributions are factored in.
In order to be successful in an increasingly difficult Central Division, the Wild needs to be a consistent threat regardless of whether it’s playing five-on-five hockey, on the man advantage or shorthanded. In other words, something has been lacking, and the club may have found it in Vanek. With free agency in mind, he spent the season with three different clubs, having to take crash courses in learning two new coaching systems in the process. That didn’t stop Vanek from scoring 27 goals (eight on the power play), 68 points and a plus-7 rating in 78 regular season games. While he had a somewhat disappointing performance with Montreal in the playoffs, there’s no doubting his ability.
With a full training camp in Mike Yeo’s system under his belt, Vanek could easily get back to close to a point-per-game form. It also doesn't hurt he'll have talented play-makers feeding him the biscuit regardless of whether he skates on the first or second line. But the main thing Vanek brings to the table - the No. 1 reason he's getting paid - is that he knows how to score, and he knows how to score in large amounts. Simply put, he provides the element Minnesota has been missing since the departure of Marian Gaborik.
As we’ve already seen this preseason, fans can also expect a newly revamped special teams unit, and the goal scoring ability of Vanek is going to be a huge reason why. It’s not just him, either. The emergence of Finnish phenom Mikael Granlund and dynamic offensive rear guard Mathew Dumba will likely force guys like Koivu and Spurgeon to the second power play unit, bolstering the club’s depth and trending towards a more balanced and consistent attack.
With the tools given to him – especially his prized new scorer – there’s no reason why Yeo can’t lift his team into a top-10 power play ranking and, if five-on-five offense sees a boost in production, lock up a top-3 seed in the Central Division. That’s when the season really begins.