Someone asked me a fair question the other day: Is Buffalo Sabres #26 Thomas Vanek a superstar? After 4 years of NHL play, can Vanek be considered in the same league as Ovechkin, Crosby, Datsyuk, Malkin, Zetterberg or Iginla? To that question, I'd have to say, "No". But can he get there? Can he reach that superstar status? To that, Id have to reply with a wide smiling, "Yes".
To reach superstar status, Vanek needs to continue to evolve his role beyond just "goal scorer", and mold himself into a complete dominate two way player. Over the past few seasons, he has taken great strides thus far to become just that. The first 20 games of last season, Thomas Vanek was simply phenomenal. He was stripping pucks, leading rushes, scoring goals (short handed, power play and even strength) and overall, he looked like a genuine stud. In the first part of the season, very few players (if any) in the league were outplaying Vanek. It was in that early part of the season I think we saw the true potential of Vanek.
After the initial god-like 20 games (which saw Vanek score 16 goals), Vanek slowed down a bit and seemed to come back down to Earth. He was on every team's radar and had to readjust his game. He came face to face with checking lines and top pair defenseman. Vanek also had to deal with unstable linemates; it seemed every other game Vanek was paired with different players. However, even with those factors, plus an injury shortened season, he put up 40 goals. This says a great deal about Vanek's raw ability to put the puck in the net, something any superstar should be able to accomplish.
Much of Vanek's success last season stemmed from the previous summer. During that summer, Vanek committed himself to a rigorous workout regimen. He aimed to increase strength and speed, two crucial aspects in becoming a dominant player. And what do you know? All that hard work paid off. The benefits of training hard in the offseason were clearly visible when watching Vanek play. If Vanek continues to train every summer, increasing his strength and speed even further, it will greatly aid him in his quest to become better than he is. The challenge for Vanek lies in becoming better at the other factors one must consider while judging a "superstar"; that is, he must focus on defensive awareness, two way play and leadership.
TV made huge improvements in his two way play between 07-08 and 08-09. His time on the PK last season was evidence of that. He needs to continue to work hard, play two way hockey, earn more ice time and put forth a legitimate effort on the backcheck every night. If he does those things consistently, he will be the complete, dominating player we witnessed early last season.
The final thing Vanek must accomplish before ascending to superstar status is earning his coach's utmost confidence, and becoming a true leader on the team. As much as Ruff and Vanek don't seem to get along, I think Ruff has been a positive influence on Vanek. His tough love has made Vanek better over the last four years, especially as a two way player. I hope in time, Vanek earns the trust of the coaching staff and vice versa. When that time approaches, perhaps then Vanek will feel more comfortable assuming a leadership role in the locker room. I applaud Head Coach Lindy Ruff for demanding the best out of Vanek, but Ruff needs to walk a fine line with him. He's worked hard thus far and has improved his defensive game, clearly demonstrating hunger to earn more ice time. Lindy should give Vanek more ice time to nibble on next season. If given a bite, perhaps Vanek will repay Ruff by offering the Sabres the whole deal: clutch goals, leadership and dominating two way play.
On a side note...Some may argue that "superstar" players should also have the ability to make those around them better. That holds true for playmaking forwards, but it can also be argued that putting the puck in the net is more important than "pretty passing". Vanek may never have the playmaking ability of Datysuk or Malkin, but that's not where his natural ability lies. He is a raw goal scorer, and there is certainly no shame in that.
So, does Vanek have what it takes to be a superstar? Is scoring the big goals more important than setting up the pretty plays? Leave me some comments.
James Captain Deflecto