A most miserable week for the Buffalo Sabres seemed on the brink of getting a whole lot drearier.
Five days after co-captains Daniel Briere and Chris Drury vanished from the roster, a team from the Alberta prairie breezed in to poach Buffalo's top goal scorer. The offer made to winger Thomas Vanek was so enormously improbable that Sabres fans, still wounded by Black Sunday, feared he would be snatched away.
"I'm happy the fans don't have to think about that because I'm back," Vanek said.
The Edmonton Oilers on Friday morning incensed the Sabres by extending a radical offer sheet to Vanek worth $50 million over seven years. Vanek was a restricted free agent, meaning the Sabres had the right to match any proposal. The Sabres did, and Vanek landed the richest contract in Buffalo sports history.
Vanek heard Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier make the announcement while listening to an Internet audio feed of Friday afternoon's news conference from HSBC Arena. The 23-year-old Austrian and his pregnant fiancee, Ashley Karner, sat at their computer in their Minneapolis home and wept.
"I was kind of in shock," Vanek said. "I was online, listening to it, and when Darcy came out and announced they would match it, it brought tears to my eyes. I was overwhelmed.
"We're both just so happy that we're back. We know all the players, all the wives, the management, the city. The fans are great. We're just happy to be back in Buffalo. We both cried when we heard."
Vanek made $942,400 in his sophomore NHL season. He led the Sabres with 43 goals and added 41 assists to finish second to Briere in scoring. Vanek amassed a plus-47 rating to lead the NHL, the first Sabre to do so in 27 years.
Benched for much of the playoffs as a rookie because coach Lindy Ruff was not satisfied with his level of passion, Vanek this spring tied for third in playoff scoring with six goals and 10 points in 16 games.
Vanek will make $10 million next season, $8 million the following season and then $6.4 million annually for the remainder of the deal.
Vanek's lucrative contract will intensify expectations. His $7.14 million average salary is more than twice that of his closest teammates, winger Maxim Afinogenov and defenseman Jaroslav Spacek. They average $3.33 million apiece.
"I'm not dumb," Vanek said. "I know the pressure is going to be high, really high. But pressure has been there wherever I've played. I know this is another level, and the pressure is going to rise, but I'm ready for it.
"I want to come in and be a complete player. I've grown a lot over the last two years and I can grow a lot more. It's not always about goals and points, although I know that's what I'm getting paid for. But it's about doing whatever it takes to win."
The Sabres had a week to decide if they wanted to match Edmonton's offer. Going after other team's players with offer sheets is a tactic rarely used in the NHL, although it might be gaining popularity. Had the Sabres declined, they would have been compensated with four first-round draft picks based on the money involved.
"I just assumed they would debate it back and forth," said Steve Bartlett, Vanek's agent. "But they made a quick decision and took all the speculation and controversy out of it and matched the offer. It spoke volumes about their commitment to a competitive team and it spoke volumes to their evaluation of Thomas."
But was the price too high?
The Sabres were stung by not being more proactive with Briere and Drury, and their policy of not negotiating contracts during the season might have cost them again. Regier admitted he hadn't spoken to Bartlett until a couple of weeks ago. By then, Regier said, Bartlett had made up his mind to solicit offer sheets from the 29 other teams.
Had the parties held serious discussions when they were allowed in January, Vanek might be a Sabre for substantially fewer dollars.
"We were never going to not match an offer for Thomas Vanek," Regier said. "He's the future of our franchise."
The Oilers forced the Sabres into signing not only the most expensive deal in Sabres history, but also the longest. The Sabres have been opposed to contracts longer than four years but pushed the limit to five years with their late offers last week to Briere and Drury.
Vanek's seven-year pact extends into what would have been his first four years of unrestricted free agency, a time when players such as Briere and Drury can make the most money. Given the NHL's escalating salaries, Vanek's hefty price tag could look like a wise purchase in time.
"I know the Sabres stepped up to do more than they were comfortable with," Bartlett said. "But I don't want the people of Buffalo to feel like they've gotten [cheated]. I want them to look three or four years down the road and see he's a bargain and not lose him when he's 27, 28, 29.
"It might be a blessing in disguise."
The Sabres have committed about $33.5 million toward the $50.3 million salary cap. The Sabres spent right up to last season's $44 million cap, and managing partner Larry Quinn has said they will pay more this season -- but not nearly to the ceiling.