Points coming for Wild’s Vanek as he re-adjusts to life back in Minnesota
ST. PAUL, Minn. — For two years, speculation existed about Thomas Vanek returning to Minnesota to play for the Wild.
Vanek followed through and signed a three-year contract with Minnesota in the offseason, eschewing offers from former teams Buffalo and the New York Islanders, among others, to come back to the state where he was a college star at the University of Minnesota and lived in the offseason.
The forward who had scored 40 or more goals twice in his nine-year NHL career arrived with weighty expectations placed on him. Vanek was the high-scoring forward and power-play dynamo to solve the Wild’s scoring issues.
Nine games into this season, Vanek was without a goal. He went 21 games with just one goal. The adjustment was taking longer than expected.
Quietly, Vanek is becoming more comfortable in Minnesota and points have followed.
"He is from here, he knows the city but he doesn’t know the staff, doesn’t know the guys, it takes a little while to get adjusted to it," said Wild forward Jason Pominville, who played with Vanek in Buffalo. "I think he has and he’s back to being the same old Van just like I know him."
Vanek has five goals and five assists in 12 games heading into Tuesday night’s home game against the San Jose Sharks. Head coach Mike Yeo said after last Friday’s win against Toronto, he’s seen Vanek assert himself more in the locker room and on the ice.
"As far as I’m concerned, since the (holiday) break, I’ve been very pleased with his game," Yeo said after Friday’s game. "I feel like it’s come along. But subtly, behind the scenes, he’s taking on more of a leadership role, a lot more vocal on the bench and in the locker room. For any player, I really believe that the more engaged you are in the game in all situations, the better you play."
Vanek didn’t score his second goal of the season until Nov. 28. He had scored at least 25 goals in every season of his NHL career. The only season Vanek fell short was his 20 goals in 38 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season.
With time, Vanek has grown more accustomed to his surroundings, teammates and coaches, and his place on the Wild.
"I feel a lot more comfortable," Vanek said Monday. "I feel more comfortable with my own game and with everyone else here. So I think sometimes it goes quicker. This time I think it took a little bit longer, but that’s OK, I think. Again, for me, it just took to figure everyone out, what everyone is about and I think I’m there."
On Nov. 28, he had a goal and two assists, giving him six goals and seven assists in the past 16 games. Yeo reportedly sat down with Vanek to watch film together and the coach showed the player what was missing.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Vanek has become more vocal and is scoring more points. He’s third on the team with 24 points and is one of five players to play in every game. His seven goals are sixth on the Wild. His 17 assists are third on the team.
"I see myself as one of the leaders here, but to be a leader I think you have to be here for a little bit and understand everyone’s personality," Vanek said. "That took me a while to figure out what everyone is all about. But especially when times are going bad, I think certain guys have to step up and take a little bit more of a role and I’m trying to do that."
Vanek isn’t the first high-profile free agent to start slow with a new team. Ryan Suter went through a comparable adjustment in 2013 after signing with Minnesota.
Of the players to change teams this past offseason, many are facing similar circumstances. St. Louis’ Paul Stastny has 19 points in 31 games. Dallas has received 27 points in 38 games from Jason Spezza and 13 points in 35 games from Ales Hemsky. Phoenix’s Sam Gagner has 20 points in 37 games.
Jarome Iginla has 25 points in 39 games for Colorado. Chicago’s Brad Richards has 21 points in 36 games. Matt Moulson, who went back to Buffalo after finishing last season with Minnesota, has 17 points in 37 games.
Subtly, behind the scenes, he’s taking on more of a leadership role, a lot more vocal on the bench and in the locker room.
Wild coach Mike Yeo
Vanek looks to be overcoming his slow start.
"Might have been a little shy when he first arrived but it’s just normal, you’re new to the team, new to the locker room, you don’t really know the guys," Pominville said. "But once he got adjusted, I haven’t really seen much of a difference of his days here to his days in Buffalo. I think he’s been the same in the room, and obviously on the ice he’s a guy that can help us in a lot of different ways."
Falk recalled: The Wild recalled defenseman Justin Falk from the American Hockey League on Tuesday.
Falk, 26, has played in nine games with Minnesota this season and averaged 9 minutes, 21 seconds of ice time. Yeo told reporters after the team’s morning skate that defenseman Nate Prosser was sick.
Falk has one goal and three assists in 21 games this season with the Iowa Wild of the AHL.
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