BUFFALO, N.Y. – Almost daily, Jason Pominville will get recognized around the Twin Cities. He’s always flattered, although inevitably the Wild winger knows where the conversation will usually end up.
It takes mere minutes for hockey-mad Wild and Gophers fans to ask Pominville if his former Buffalo Sabres teammate, Thomas Vanek, will soon be reuniting with him in Minnesota.
“It’s funny,” said Pominville, the former Sabres captain who faces his former team and buddy for the first time Monday night. “It feels like I answer that question at least once or twice a day. It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out. He’s a very smart guy and talented player. I’m sure he’ll take his time and make the best decision when the time comes.”
Vanek, the former Gophers star who helped lead the University of Minnesota to a national championship in 2003, can become a free agent July 1. The winless Sabres are in rebuild mode, so many assume Vanek is a goner and have pegged the goal-scorer as Wild-bound.
Vanek, the Sabres co-captain who lives in Stillwater during the offseason, owns a piece of the city’s Lumberyard Hockey and Sports Center and trains at Mariucci Arena, is aware #PariseWatch and #SuterWatch on Twitter two summers ago has already turned into #VanekWatch in Minnesota.
But free agency, Vanek says, is not on his mind.
“I know right now we’re rebuilding and have a young team and a lot of good young players,” Vanek said during a phone interview Friday. “That’s the reason why I just wanted to hold off and wait to see what happens here. With that said, I’ve never said I wouldn’t sign an extension here. I have enjoyed my eight years going on nine in Buffalo. It’s a great hockey town. The people really live for the Buffalo Sabres, I live in a great neighborhood and my kids love it, my wife loves it. And that goes a long way.
“So whatever happens on the business side of it — if I leave or stay — I’m not going to be one of those guys that says anything bad about Buffalo because I’ve enjoyed my time here and still do.”
The Austrian-born Vanek, 29, scored 57 goals and 113 points in 83 games over two years for the Gophers. He led the team in scoring both years, was a WCHA Rookie of the Year and his 31 goals as a freshman rank second in school history. In 2003, he was the Frozen Four MVP, beating Michigan in overtime and scoring the winning goal in the national championship game against New Hampshire.
He’s a pure goal scorer. His next goal — his 253rd of his NHL career — will move him into fifth all-time in Sabres history. His 105 power-play goals rank fourth.
Vanek can score many different ways, from Brian Rolston-like slapshots in shootouts to snap shots off the wing to how-did-he-do-it deflections to dazzling between-the-legs goals like he scored last week against Columbus.
“With that goal, I knew before the puck got there what I wanted to do,” Vanek said. “Just figured I’d change the angle of attack.”
“His ability to find a way to get his stick in the danger area in front of the net, I think he’s hands down by far the best net-front guy you can have,” Pominville said. “A lot of times you just have to throw pucks in his area knowing he can get his stick on them. His speed and ability to pass the puck are underestimated, too.”
The Wild will have the cap space to pursue Vanek if he reaches free agency, although it’s not guaranteed it will. If the Wild’s young forwards Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter and Mikael Granlund blossom, the team could decide to spend that money elsewhere, such as on a goaltender or bruising defenseman.
But some believe one reason Vanek is destined for the Wild is his friendship with Pominville. They talk all the time, and when Pominville was traded to the Wild, Vanek, who lived two doors down, helped him pack, then drove him to the airport early the next morning.
“We’re similar ages and played nine years together — eight in Buffalo and one in Rochester, and even there we lived in the same complex,” Vanek said. “He’s a great friend. I have friends on the [Wild], but I have friends on other teams as well.”
Regardless, Vanek said the only thing on his mind now is helping Buffalo escape the NHL’s cellar.
“We knew going into this season that it was going to be tough to win games,” Vanek said. “This league is good. In the cap era, there’s a lot of good teams each and every night. Everyone can beat everyone. But when you go young, especially as young as we did, it makes it even harder.
“And not that they’re not good players. Every single one of these guys are good hockey players, or they wouldn’t be here. But the major difference is experience. You can’t teach experience. I was the same way when I was young. And until you go through 82-game season grinds multiple times, that’s when you start to learn about yourself.”