I'm trying to take these few days before the playoffs begin to relax, take a deep breath, and reflect on what a fun, exciting regular season it was. I know if the Sabres don't win it all, the season is going to be considered a disappointment on some level so I want to enjoy this moment while I can.
A couple days ago a friend and I were discussing what we thought the best story this year was. We came up with a lot of things, obviously. Was it going wire-to-wire in the Eastern Conference, winning the President's trophy, watching Ryan Miller continue to mature as a player and a leader, or the team finishing with 7 guys with 20 or more goals (and an 8th sitting at 19)? The winning streak to start the season, the obvious appreciation and love between the team and the fans, or the Sabres taking over the NHL merchandise sales? Definitely a tough pick. I was tempted by the Rochester babies stepping in during our stretch of injuries and keeping the team afloat. If you'd told me that halfway through the season we'd start losing guys, at one point playing without 8 regulars, and still finish the season at the top, I would've told you you were crazy, especially considering some of the injuried parties. But God bless those kids, they came up and played their hearts out. They left everything on the ice every night and they competed with players much older and more experienced than them. (A glove tap to the regulars who stepped up their game during this stretch, Derek Roy and Jochen Hecht coming to mind immediately.) As a non-Buffalo fan friend of mine (yeah, I have a few) said, "You guys are $#!#!&*# cylons. Kill one and another one pops up in its place." It was a ton 'o fun to watch.
But, as entertaining as the kids were, the story of the year for me is Thomas Vanek. For those not in the know, Vanek, after a pretty solid rookie season (25 goals, 23 assists), found himself benched for most of last year's playoffs. I don't know that Lindy Ruff ever gave an official reason outside of, "I felt other guys were playing better" but the most popular theory was that Ruff was displeased with Vanek's lack of effort in the defensive zone and his tendency to coast at times. Vanek worked his butt of in the off-season, came into training camp noticeably slimmer and quicker, and improved every single aspect of his game this season. He skated hard, he backchecked regularly, he even played on the penalty kill (my husband, the first time this happened: "I'm sorry but am I seeing Thomas Vanek on the PK?"). Vanek learned to use his size more, took a beating in front of the net night after night, and pulled out some beautiful moves. He finished the season with 43 goals, 41 assists, and a league leading (!) +47. Now, for the record, I think plus/minus can be a misleading stat - it doesn't take into account how strong (or weak) the teammates or opposition on the ice with you are for one thing - but to go from a -11 one season to a +47 the next season? The mind, it is boggled. That shows a huge committment to change in work ethic on Vanek's part, plain and simple.
Here's the thing. This really shouldn't be that big of a deal. Athlete is challenged by coach, athlete steps up and proves his worth. It should happen all the time. But in this day and age of pampered athletes and undermined coaches, I don't think it does. Vanek was used to being successful, particularly in big situations and suddenly he found himself on the bench when his team needed wins the most. That had to sting. I really think a lot of athletes used to being the number 1 guy wouldn't have handled the situation as well as Vanek did. Some guys would scream and argue with coaches about it. Some would complain to teammates, maybe causing some dissension. Some would whine to the media, making a big deal about how he, a former first round pick for cryin' out loud, was riding the pine. Some would go over the coach's head to another coach, or the GM, or the owner with complaints about how the coach clearly didn't know what he was doing. (Glove tap to Darcy Reiger and Tom Golisano for trusting their coach to do his job, by the way.) Some - many - would've pouted all through the playoffs, into the off-season, and carried that grudge right into the next season, sure that there was nothing he could do or needed to do to improve his game. But Thomas Vanek didn't do that. There were many reports of he and Lindy having long, long conversations during practices throughout last season's playoffs, but that's where the discussion stayed. I can't recall Vanek ever saying anything about the situation publicly, even this season, outside of a very mild, "I didn't think I was really playing that badly." He recognized that despite a very solid rookie year, there was room for improvement. He recognized that the only way to prove Lindy wrong was on the ice. He recognized that a gauntlet had been thrown down and he picked it up and skated off with it at full speed.
Vanek's second goal against Boston on April 5 is pretty reflective of what kind of player he became this season. He was back in the defensive zone, pounced on a loose puck, hauled it down the ice, out-muscled a defender who was doing everything he could think of to stop him, and finished it off with a beautiful move, pushing the puck from his forehand to his backhand - hustle, muscle, and skill all bundled up in one 10 second clip. All in all, Vanek was a total joy to watch this season and it's a little scary to think that he's probably still learning. Here's hoping this kid is wearing a Sabres uniform for a very, very long time.