Hartman: Wild owner, GM work out Vanek deal

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 3, 2014 - 6:38 AM

Craig Leipold and Chuck Fletcher deserve credit for bringing in the former Gopher at a decent price.

No doubt the Wild made a big splash with the signing of Thomas Vanek to a three-year, $19.5 million deal. Many in the national media were surprised that Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher could get Vanek for such a reasonable price.

In signing the right winger, the Wild certainly did something the Vikings, Twins and Timberwolves could learn from in acquiring a free-agent superstar. It’s possible the Wild, because of that move, will sell out their home games at Xcel Energy Center before the season starts.

The Wild had the advantage that the Austrian-born Vanek wanted to come back to Minnesota and — after starring for the Gophers for two years and his wife, Ashley, having grown up here — it made great sense for him to join the Wild. Team owner Craig Leipold essentially said as much, saying Vanek gave the Wild a “hometown discount.”

After playing for the Sabres, Islanders and Canadiens last season, Vanek wanted to find a home and team where he would be comfortable. But it still is a great acquisition for Fletcher. Vanek scored 68 points last season between the three teams, and the Wild’s highest-scoring player last season was Jason Pominville, who had 60 points.

Vanek’s story is a unique one. He moved to the United States alone in 1998, at age 14, because his parents knew he had to leave Austria to improve his play.

Vanek’s breakout season was in 2001-02, when he scored 91 points in 53 games for the Sioux Falls Stampede of the United States Hockey League. He had scored only 62 points for the Stampede the previous two seasons. He then became the first European-born player to ever sign with the Gophers.

Some thought Vanek could have gone directly to the NHL at 17, but he was more interested in developing his game at the college level.

“I’m set on going to Minnesota for one or two years,” he told the Star Tribune in 2001. “I want to play good hockey, be happy off the ice and prepare for life. I need to get stronger and mature as a person before taking the next step.”

Vanek did just that. He led the team in goals (31) and assists (31) during his freshman season. He was the first Gophers freshman to lead the team in scoring since Mike Antonovich in 1969-1970. He was the fourth-leading goal scorer in the nation and was named the 2003 WCHA Rookie of the Year.

Vanek further cemented his reputation when he was named the MVP of the Frozen Four after scoring the game-winning goals in the semifinals against Michigan and in the championship against New Hampshire.

Vanek would have a solid sophomore season, leading the Gophers in scoring once again (26-25—51), before leaving the team to play for the Rochester Americans in the AHL in 2004-05 and joining Buffalo for the 2005-06 season. He had been selected fifth overall by the Sabres in the 2003 draft. Also taken in that draft were defenseman Ryan Suter (seventh overall to Nashville) and center Zach Parise (17th overall to New Jersey), now Vanek’s teammates with the Wild.

Vanek had success with Buffalo, finishing fifth in the NHL in goals scored in 2006-07 with 43. Buffalo signed him to a seven-year, $50 million deal following that season. In 2008-09, he was named to his first All-Star Game and finished with 40 goals.

In 2010-11, he had the second-highest point total of his career with 73 (32 goals and 41 assists) in 80 games. He had 61 points in 78 games the following season.

Vanek split the NHL’s lockout-shortened 2012-13 season between Austria, playing with the Graz 99ers, and the Sabres before being traded twice last season before becoming an unrestricted free agent.

“It doesn’t get much better for me right now,” Vanek told Sportsnet after signing with the Wild. “In the end, we made it work. What’s more exciting is how good the team is. … It’s a team that is very deep, and I know I can add to that.”

Wild fans should toast Leipold for not only making it possible to add Parise and Suter, a feat nobody in hockey thought would happen, but also making it financially possible to put Vanek in a Wild uniform.

Jottings

• The Twins were shut out Wednesday for the sixth time this season and the second time in four games, an indication this team can’t score runs. They rank ninth in the American League with 346 runs. Three of those shutouts came at home. … Chris Parmelee, who filled in for the injured Joe Mauer at first base Wednesday, got two of the Twins’ four hits in a 4-0 loss to the Royals and extended his hitting streak to 12 games. Over the 12 games, Parmelee is hitting .457 with four doubles, a home run, two RBI and two walks. Parmelee has three consecutive multi-hit games and five multi-hit games in his past six games, going 12-for-24 during that period and being the Twins’ most consistent hitter. … The Twins are seven games below .500 but are 17-14 against AL Central teams.

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