Nothing has changed, Thomas Vanek insisted.
OK, not even Vanek truly believes this. Just about everything his changed -- both his family and his finances. This summer, his ship came in and his son came home. About the only thing that hasn't changed is where he plays hockey, which is in Buffalo.
But here was the point that Vanek was making, probably for the 10 millionth time since he became the NHL's $10 million man: Nothing has changed as far as his commitment on the ice.
"Money isn't going to change me," Vanek said by phone over the weekend. He had just finished practice with the Sabres, who play the Wild tonight in a preseason game at Grand Forks, N.D. "Just because you've got money doesn't mean it's going to solve everything. It's a nice contract. But I have the same goals, the same purpose in life. I still look at everything the same way."
The contract, of course, is already legendary. After Vanek's breakthrough second season, the Edmonton Oilers tried to wrest the restricted free agent away from the Sabres. Make that tried very hard. Oilers General Manager Kevin Lowe threw a seven-year, $50 million offer sheet at Vanek. After a couple of deep breaths, the Sabres matched that offer July 6, but not before throwing a few verbal body checks Lowe's way.
Just like that, Vanek -- whose path from Graz, Austria, to NHL stardom included a two-year hitch with the Gophers -- went from making $942,400 last season to getting $10 million this season: $5 million in bonus money, $5 million in salary.
But ask Vanek about the summer's big event and he will move ahead to Aug. 16, when his girlfriend, Ashley Karner, gave birth to their first child, Blake Thomas.
"If my life has changed, it's because of the baby," said Vanek, who lives in Minneapolis during the offseason. "A little boy, that's the biggest change."
Could be that having a child at home will make Vanek try even harder at the rink.
A scary thought.
Trimmed down and toned up
The 6-2 Vanek brought his hard-skating, puck-controlling game to the Sabres and totaled 48 points as a rookie in 2005-06. Very good numbers. But Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff wasn't satisfied. Indeed, during the playoffs that season, Vanek found himself in the press box.
Last year? Trimmed down and toned up, Vanek was a wonder of two-way hockey. He went from a minus-11 as a rookie to a league-leading plus-47 last season. His 43 goals were the most by a Sabres player since 1992-93. Only Dany Heatley and Alexander Ovechkin had more goals among NHL left wingers.
Of Vanek's 84 points, 60 came at even strength or shorthanded, tied with Joe Thornton for most in the league. That is a multimillion-dollar résumé.
"He really got himself in tremendous shape and he came to camp in better shape than he had ever been in," Ruff said. "He was lighter; he had better endurance. He was able to do things at a higher pace. There was too much downtime in his game that first year."
A team in transition
But what now? The Sabres are a team in transition, too. They lost some key free agents in Daniel Briere (Philadelphia), Chris Drury (New York Rangers) and Dainius Zubrus (New Jersey).
A lot of responsibility -- not to mention expectation -- will likely be placed on Vanek's shoulders.