Thomas Vanek said he wouldn’t call his first season with the Wild “a horrible year.”
“I’m not going to say I was pumped about it, but with what I was dealing with — not being healthy, bouncing around lines, having to be more of a playmaker than I’ve ever been, I still hit 20 goals and 50 points,” he said. “But it certainly wasn’t where I would like to be. My goal is to have 30-plus goals.”
Vanek’s 21 goals and 52 points in 80 games were the lowest output of his 10-year NHL career in a non-lockout season. So were his five power-play goals and 171 shots.
Vanek said there were reasons:
• The 31-year-old winger played through two hernias and a detached left groin, injuries that required lots of tape and painkillers to play through, especially in the second half after hearing his groin “pop” one night in Vancouver. “It’s fun to be able to walk up stairs again and get out of bed without pain and actually go outside and throw the ball with my kids,” Vanek said.
• He never felt he found consistent linemates. “It wasn’t so much the system being different as finding my game within the system. You’re playing with [Kyle Brodziak and Justin Fontaine] and three games later, you’re playing with [Charlie Coyle] and Nino [Niederreiter]. It’s hard on all of us.”
• Vanek is a shooter. He didn’t play with the Wild’s best playmaking center, Mikael Granlund, so after feeling he was not getting the puck in shooting positions, he decided to be more of a creator than shooter.
“If I wanted points and goals, I would have signed with the Islanders and had a center like Johnny [Tavares] and a winger like Kyle [Okposo], but I came back here because I thought we had depth and one of the best defenses in the league,” Vanek said. “Minnesota is special to me and being a former Gopher and winning, I’d like to come back here and contribute to getting a Cup.
“But I knew the goals and points would be harder. They’re not going to be any easier this year just because I feel better. We don’t have maybe the strongest depth in the middle, so I’ll have to find a way again of probably making more plays than shooting and creating chances rather than getting chances.”
The Wild acquired Vanek, who is two goals from 300, to improve its goal-scoring. But he scored once on 37 shots in his first 21 Wild games before ending the regular season with 14 goals and 13 assists his final 38 games.
But the final impression was the playoffs. In 10 games, he had no goals, four assists, 19 shots and was minus-7.
Wild coaches pleaded, at times, for him to shoot more, but Vanek is the type of player who needs to receive the puck in shooting positions. He felt he wasn’t, so he took the playmaking upon himself.
“Years past I don’t think I was as much of a playmaker as last year,” Vanek said. “Review my year, I don’t think I had a whole lot of chances from in front of the net or the slot. I was more on the outside trying to create space and making plays. I always felt like that was in my game, but not for every shift. I more find the open spaces and wait for that hole, but last year I was more of a distributor than my 10 years before.
“It took me a lot longer to figure out my game.”
Coach Mike Yeo says “in some ways that is true, but without question, there are times where Thomas has to shoot the puck more.”
The concern over Vanek being so forthright about last year’s transition to Minnesota is that the Wild returns the same centers — Granlund, Mikko Koivu, Coyle and Erik Haula. Vanek, who will make his preseason debut Tuesday in Winnipeg, looks like he’ll start the season with Coyle and Justin Fontaine. Yeo feels both can get Vanek the puck.
“I’m not complaining about centers and Chuckie,” Vanek said. “I’m just explaining why I was less than a shooter last year. What Chuckie did last year, the way he grew at the center position, was great. You saw the strides of where he began: he couldn’t win a faceoff to [being] a great faceoff man.”
“I can’t play the middle,” Vanek added with a chuckle. “It’s a hard position. I shouldn’t say I feel bad for Chuckie, but he was in a tough spot. As a power winger, they put him down the middle and he worked hard at it and I tried to talk to him about how I can support him and make him better. Not only did my game get better, I thought his game got better, too. Hopefully he can continue.”
Vanek looks noticeably thinner. He says that’s because he’s healthy and could train the way he wanted to during 10 weeks of sometimes painful rehab. He also feels he rediscovered his skating stride by working with local professional skating expert Diane Ness.
“She’s amazing,” Vanek said. “Everybody knows I’m not the smoothest skater to begin with, but she did wonders, I think. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going to start skating like Haulzy and [Jordan Schroeder], but I do think you can become more efficient. And I feel great right now.”