The Sabres had a rough go at it last year, but the hardest thing to swallow for the team and the fans was just how close they came.
A team that endures two double-digit game winless streaks does not deserve to make the playoffs, but if they had won two games, just two, in each of those stretches, they would have been playing in late-April.
So how do these Sabres regain the form of the team that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals two years in a row? Here's the first of three things that can make it happen.
1. Make Thomas Vanek Comfortable. Last offseason was both extremely kind and horrible to Vanek. He signed the first major offer sheet (Ryan Kesler was offered a 1 year, $1.9M contract by the Flyers in 2006 which was matched by Vancouver) since 1998 when Sergei Federov was courted by the Carolina Hurricanes. And as we all know, this was not a minor contract at seven years and $50M. The man made $10M last season which is nuts.
A contract like that not only comes with a large weekly paycheck, but also a ridiculous amount of pressure. People questioned Darcy giving up the four first-round draft picks we would have received in compensation. They also questioned whether Vanek would ever be worth that kind of money, saying he was lazy and uninspired.
I've had many conversations citing both common issues with the Vanek contract and I always end up in the same place when it comes to my response. This is not the NFL. You do not see an instant return on a rookie, unless you have the first pick, 99 percent of the time.
Yes, Edmonton is not a very good hockey team, but they're not bad enough to get us that first pick. Darcy knew that and could not give up the future of our hockey team for a few high draft picks that may not be half the player Tommy is.
And with all that pressure and doubt cast on his shoulders, Thomas Vanek played out of his mind. You're probably all up in arms right now saying he didn't show up the first 50 games of the season, but you're wrong.
He did show up, and I'd say for 45 of the first 50 games he was one of our better players on the ice. He had scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity, opportunities created by his own hard work most of the time, but the guy couldn't buy a goal.
Then came the last 30 games and out popped the Vanek we fell in love with in 2006-2007. He was scoring ridiculous goals and creating chances for everyone on the ice.
What was the change you may ask? His comfort level. Vanek was finally able to accept the role in which he needed to play on the team, and boy did he ever.
I assume we will see the second-half Vanek this season, and for the whole season too. That is a scary notion for other teams because I am convinced that had he played the entire season as he did the last 30 games he may have reached that 50-goal plateau.
It's been 15 years since the Sabres have had a 50-goal scorer, and that was 1992-1993 when Alexander Mogilny had 76 and Pat LaFontaine had 53. If Vanek is his comfortable self from day one, I think you'll see that drought ended.
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