Former Gophers star Thomas Vanek gets his happy homecoming with Wild

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 2, 2014 - 7:19 AM

Chuck Fletcher stuck to his guns.

On a day where lucrative long-term deals were being tossed around the NHL at record pace, the Wild general manager risked that the allure of coming home to Minnesota and playing on a contender would be enough for Thomas Vanek to spurn longer, richer contracts elsewhere.

In the end, the Austrian-born former Gophers star wasn’t turned off and the Wild, a team in need of more goals, attracted the best goal scorer on the open market with a three-year, $19.5 million contract.

“About a year ago when I made my decision to go to free agency, this was definitely the team that I had in mind,” said Vanek, a two-time 40-goal scorer who has scored at least 25 goals in all eight of his full seasons and 20 goals in 38 games in lockout-shortened 2013. “For it to come true today, I’ve still not come to terms with it. I’m extremely thrilled to be a part of the Wild and of a group like this. I’m just happy.

“My top priority was to sign here.”

It actually is hard to come to terms that after more than a year of anticipation and speculation in the Twin Cities and leaguewide, after he turned down seven-year, $50 million extensions from the Sabres and Islanders last season, that Vanek will wear No. 26 in a Wild sweater next season and not have to move him, his wife and their three sons out of his Stillwater home.

“We all knew it was probably going to happen,” said his former Sabres linemate, Jason Pominville. “Now that it really has, I’m really happy he is part of our team.”

It was a wild day in which it seemed every ginormous available player landed in the Central Division, which could be dubbed the Division of Death. Many considered it the NHL’s toughest division already.

Dallas, a team on the rise, traded for Jason Spezza and signed Ales Hemsky to a three-year, $12 million deal. St. Louis signed Paul Stastny to a four-year, $28 million deal. Chicago signed Brad Richards to a one-year, $2 million deal. Wild killer Jarome Iginla, who was courted hard by the Wild, signed a three-year, $16 million deal with Colorado soon after Vanek signed with Minnesota. And remember, last weekend, Nashville acquired James Neal.

For a Wild team that scored 2.43 goals per game (tied for 24th in the NHL), all the moves in the division made signing Vanek more critical.

“It’s only going to get more difficult to make the playoffs,” Fletcher said. “The teams in our division are stronger today than what they were yesterday, and we like to think we’re stronger today as well.”

Vanek, 30, who led the Gophers to a national championship in 2003, brings with him a history of goal scoring.

Since the start of the 2005-06 season, he has scored the eighth-most goals in the NHL (277 goals in 663 games) and the third-most power-play goals (113). He also has 556 points and is tied for 11th with 0.42 goals per game during that span.

“He’s a game-breaker,” Fletcher said. “The things he does well are things that we need.”

Vanek 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 very creative with the puck, he’s very good with the puck on his stick, and he’s always in front of the net and he’s always around the net,” said Wild defenseman Keith Ballard, Vanek’s former Gophers teammate. “That’s an area we probably could have been a little better at. Now we add quite possibly the best net-front guy in the league.

“He gets his stick on so many shots. That’s going to help us 5-on-5, that’s going to help us on the power play. Twenty-five to 30 every year, I mean, that’s hard to find.”

Vanek’s stock did drop during the playoffs. He scored five goals and 10 points for Montreal, which went to the Eastern Conference finals, but he was heavily scrutinized and saw his ice time slashed.

“It certainly wasn’t my best [playoffs], I can tell you that,” Vanek said. “But I’ll take the blame for that. It’s not always easy moving around [to three teams] and being away from my family like I have been.”

Vanek, a righthanded shot, is more comfortable at left wing. Coach Mike Yeo will experiment with lines in training camp, but despite the Vanek-Pominville chemistry in the past, initially expect Yeo to start with Zach Parise-Mikael Granlund-Pominville and Vanek-Mikko Koivu-Charlie Coyle. That could move Nino Niederreiter to the third line.

“You do something like this … it’s going to make your first and second lines stronger, but … you’re also making your third line stronger,” Yeo said.

Ballard spent the past week “arm-twisting” Vanek, although Vanek said, “I didn’t need much of a sales pitch.”

“The best thing I’ve done in my career so far was win the NCAA championship with the Gophers,” Vanek said. “So to be a part of the Wild now and go after the big prize and having a chance to do it in Minnesota is beyond my wildest dreams.”

 

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