Sometimes I look back at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft and wonder if the Sabres made the right move. The first round of that draft is arguably the deepest in recent memory as, five years later, nearly every player from that round is an impact player for his respective team.
The Sabres could have gone in a variety of directions with the fifth overall pick. They could have shored up the defense and selected Dion Phaneuf or Braydon Coburn. They could have reached a bit and selected scoring center Jeff Carter or bruising right winger Dustin Brown. But they needed a scoring winger and they went with a face that Buffalonians were familiar with.
That past February, the Minnesota Golden Gophers won the NCAA Championship in Buffalo behind freshman left wing Thomas Vanek.
Vanek struggled his rookie season with the Sabres coming out of the lockout, despite scoring 25 goals. It was his playoff performance that he’ll most be remembered for that year as he was benched in favor of Taylor Pyatt.
His sophomore campaign was a great turn around as he developed chemistry with center Derek Roy on the third line and finished 2006-07 with 43 goals, 84 points and an NHL-best +43.
Last year was hit and miss. At times we saw Atlas Vanek, putting the team on his shoulders and winning games on his own. Look back at the rally against Tampa Bay for proof, where Vanek scored a natural hat trick to give the Sabres a come from behind victory.
He guaranteed that his team would make the playoffs and despite scoring 14 goals in the last 14 games, the team fell short.
This year, Vanek has picked up right where he left off. He currently leads the NHL with six goals and is more confident than ever.
The Sabres are off to a 4-0 start. The powerplay is clicking. They’re scoring shorthanded goals. They haven’t given up a powerplay goal yet. Two goals tonight is the most they’ve allowed in a single game all year.
As impressive as they have been as a team (the new mindset of the team that Craig Rivet seems to have brought is a whole other discussion), it’s Vanek that everyone’s talking about.
He’s going to the net and isn’t afraid to get bumped around. He showed that several times tonight against Vancouver.
The goal he scored was a thing of beauty. He was bumped around in front of the net, an area he’s dominated his entire career and was able to roof a back hand into the top corner. He took the hit but was able to finish. He even mixed it up a little with the scuffle at the benches in the first period.
He’s been making plays like that goal all year so far. His goal against Montreal was probably the smartest goal he’s scored as a pro and his assist on Kotalik’s goal was just as nice. The ability to draw a penalty and keep your head in the game to make a pass like that to Kotalik in the slot is invaluable.
Sometimes I wonder if the Sabres were right in picking Vanek in 2003. When you see what he’s capable of, as we have in the Sabres last 20 games (going back to last season), it’s hard to argue that they were wrong. And as he gets more experience on the penalty kill and in his own zone, it’s scary to think that the Austrian Atlas can only get better.
Other thoughts on tonight’s game:
–Last night’s match against Detroit clearly took a lot out of Vancouver. They started out flat and Curtis Sanford being soft in goal didn’t help matters. This was the third game of a five game road trip for Vancouver and it showed.
The Canucks looked like they wanted to get out of the building as soon as possible and head out to Chicago for Sunday’s game against a conference opponent.
But Buffalo never really let up in the game and took advantage of a tired hockey club. It was the Sabres’ goal to get off to a fast start and they accomplished just that.
–Kaleta. I love that he’s an instigator and all that. Really I do. Guys like Darcy Tucker and Sean Avery and Jarkko Ruutuu are guys that I hate to play against but they’re also guys that I would take on my team almost every day.
But to see Kaleta just be so unwilling to drop the gloves all the time is sickening. I’m a huge fan of four-minute penalties. Who isn’t? But he’s earning a bad reputation around the league. That diving call he took tonight? I’d expect to see that called against him more frequently just because of his style.
What he did tonight may have sparked the team but his routine could grow old very fast and if he doesn’t start standing up himself by dropping the gloves, his antics could eventually get stars like Vanek or Pominville speared or worse by a bitter opponent.
–On the topic of the agigitators, Peters kind of looked like a hockey player tonight. I think he’s a horrible waste of space, but he had a very good game tonight and not just by Peters’ usually negative standards. He even took a few shots and had some confidence.
Oh yeah, and there was this. One of the rare times he looked like a real fighter.
–The Sabres are 18-for-18 on the penalty kill this season. As long as the defense stays healthy, I have a feeling that special teams will continue to be successful. With veteran presences that the team didn’t have last year like Teppo Numminen and Rivet, there seems to be a quiet confidence on defense.
Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman and Jaroslav Spacek have been the Sabres’ most reliable defensemen over the last two or three years and adding experience and talent like Numminen and Rivet gives the team the most consistent top five they’ve had in a long time.
Andrej Sekera can only benefit from being among this corps and he’s looked very, very good for a rookie.
–Ryan Miller wasn’t particularly busy tonight but he was sharp when called upon. The first goal looked like a typical over the shoulder Miller goal but it looked to me like Kesler’s shot was tipped just as he shot it. And I’m willing to forget about the Bernier goal. It looked like a flukey play that didn’t go Buffalo’s way.
Also, I thought Miller played the puck tonight better tonight than he did all of last season. It’s easy to forget that one of Miller’s greatest strengths when he first came into the league was that he was a very strong puck handler.
–Speaking of that second goal, outside of that play, the Sedin Twins were virtually invisible. Ruff matched the Roy-Vanek-Stafford line up against them for most of the night and the Sabres were really able to keep Bernier and the twins in check.
The entire Vancouver offense seemed to be in a lull, and perhaps most of that had to do with beating the Red Wings last night. Beyond the two goals, their only other real offensive pressure came when Pavol Demitra hit the crossbar on the powerplay in the second period.
–Who thought MacArthur could be an effective second line center? For a guy who only started playing because (surprise!) Tim Connolly got hurt (again), he’s done more than an adequate job filling in for Jochen Hecht (who, once again, is brochen).
–And Kotalik also has four goals in four games. Almost forgot about that one. Somebody told him he’s in a contract year. And despite Afinogenov quiet on the stat sheet, he actually is playing well. He’s moving the puck and keeping defenders on their toes. As long he stays healthy, the scoring will come.
And if Max can heat up as someone cools down, I’m pretty sure we’ll see some more tallies in the Wins column.
–The crowd was pretty tame tonight but I think it mostly had to do to the fact that Buffalo was in the driver’s seat all game. Going into the second period up 3-0, you can only do so much chanting. Being ahead I think calmed the crowd and allowed them to enjoy the actual game rather than the T-shirt cannon. Being 200 fans short of a sellout probably made a little bit of a difference as well.
–Granted we’re only four games in, but with the way they continue to win and battle despite all the injuries, we may be looking at a Sabres team that’s deeper than even the 2005-06 roster. And that’s the team that many, myself included, thought should have won the Stanley Cup.
–With a game against Atlanta tomrrow, the worst the Sabres can do is start like Vancouver did tonight. Ruff knows how to avoid that but it will be interesting to see if this team is mature enough to be able to step up to the challenge.
If you were at the game too, we’d love to hear your take on it. That’s what the comment boxes and our e-mail address is for.