No panic in Vanek

DEREK VAN DIEST, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

Considering the reason for his enormous pay raise two years ago, it would be understandable if Buffalo Sabres winger Thomas Vanek wanted to give Kevin Lowe a big hug.

Lowe, after all, is the reason Vanek, 25, signed a $50 million US contract extension with the Sabres.

In an effort to lure him to Edmonton, the Oilers president of hockey operations signed Vanek to a seven-year, $50-million offer sheet prior to last season.

The Sabres immediately matched it.

"It was an offer I never expected, but I guess that's why I have an agent working for me," Vanek said yesterday.

"I was fortunate and appreciative that the Edmonton Oilers, as an organization, had that kind of trust in me in order to give me that offer.

"I was happy about it, but Buffalo went and matched it and I got a chance to stay here and play with guys that I'm very familiar with."

Vanek made $942,000 in the last year of his entry-level contract with the Sabres.

The fifth overall pick in the 2003 NHL entry draft had 43 goals and 41 assists in 82 games that season.

The Sabres had warned the Oilers they would match any offer sheet presented to their budding star, and were not impressed when they were forced to pay him a yearly average of just over $7 million for the next seven years.

"I was working out in Minnesota, that's where I live in the off-season, when I heard about the offer," Vanek said.

"It all happened very quickly; I didn't get a chance to think about it a lot. When I signed the offer sheet, you obviously don't know what's going to happen with everything. I thought about what it would be like to come to Edmonton, but at the same time I knew there was going to be a good chance Buffalo was going to match it.

"Regardless, I knew there was going to be a lot of pressure, no matter where I was going to be."

Undaunted when the Sabres matched, the Oilers turned their attention to Dustin Penner and were able to make him an offer that the Anaheim Ducks chose not to equal.

"I don't think signing that contract changed me one bit," Vanek said.

"I came here 10 years ago chasing my dream to play in the NHL. Once I was able to fulfill that dream, I put high expectations on myself to make the playoffs and get a chance to win the Stanley Cup."

Vanek went on to finish with 36 goals and 28 assists, in 82 games last season, down 20 points from his previous year.

This season, however, he's among the league leaders with 28 goals going into last night.

Only Alex Ovechkin (31) and Jeff Carter (30) have more.

"I can't complain how things are going this year," Vanek said.

"I could obviously always do better. I started off well, but in the past month I've battled a little bit."

Whether the Sabres make the playoffs this season will depend on how well Vanek continues to play.

"He's in new territory, up there with league leaders," said Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff.

"There's a lot of pressure with that. You get a lot of attention on the ice, more attention then he has in the past, and he's done a good job of playing through that.

"He's seeing most teams' best defensive pair and that makes things tougher for him five-on-five."

Born in Vienna, Austria, Vanek played minor hockey in Lacombe before moving on to Sioux Falls and then the University of Minnesota.

"I came to a couple of Oilers games when I was playing midget hockey around here," Vanek said.

"I still have a picture in front of the Gretzky statue out front.

"I have it back home, and every time I go home I look at it because it's unique."


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