Thomas Vanek can handle the fact that he's struggling. The thing that's hurting him, the thing that's making him slam his stick on the boards or trudge downtrodden to the penalty box, is he feels he's the reason his team is struggling.
"If we were 10-2 or whatever and I was struggling, I'd take that any day," the Buffalo Sabres forward said Thursday. "I'll take my own problems over the team's problems.
"But it's tough when the team's struggling and you're not helping out much. That makes it extra tough."
The Sabres enter tonight's game against Toronto in HSBC Arena with a victory in their last outing, but they've lost three of four and sit at the bottom of the Northeast Division. Vanek seems to be putting much of that lowly status on his shoulders.
He led the Sabres last season with 43 goals and topped the NHL with a plus-47 rating. Even more was expected this year, thanks to a $10 million salary and a spot on the No. 1 line. So far, only 27 players rank lower than his minus-6 rating, and he's scored just twice in the past nine games.
With the Sabres' record at 6-7-1, it's clearly become bothersome for Vanek. His coach has noticed, his teammates have noticed and so has anyone who's been watching.
"Sometimes, his emotions are right out there for everyone to see how frustrated he is," Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said. "It's going to be part of his maturing process. You can't let the other team see that. There's little talks with him, but I think that's part of his personality. I'm kind of OK with him doing it. I think he plays his best hockey when he's holding himself accountable. It's just you don't want to get to the point where you're beating yourself up."
Coach Lindy Ruff is worried Vanek is pounding his psyche too heavily.
"He's fighting a mental battle," Ruff said. "He's in a whole new situation. That line is in a whole new situation. They've got a tough challenge. They're playing against good lines now, they're pulling assignments against other teams' top lines, and it isn't as easy as last year."
Vanek and center Derek Roy received a bump in status after Chris Drury and Daniel Briere departed. They obliterated opponents' third lines last season, but they have yet to find success as the No. 1 unit. Roy has gone seven games without a goal, and he and Vanek can't find a stable right winger to complement them. Maxim Afinogenov has just two goals in the last 10 games, while Drew Stafford has scored twice all season.
"I'm just focused on winning, and winning as a team, making sure I'm trying to help and my line's doing the job," Vanek said. "I don't think we have done the best job over the 14 games."
Vanek was held without a shot in the Sabres' 2-1 overtime victory over Boston on Wednesday. Still, Ruff found a highlight for Vanek, praising the left winger for screening goalie Tim Thomas on Ales Kotalik's power-play goal.
"We don't score the first goal if Thomas isn't standing on top of the goaltender," Ruff said. "You've got to give him a lot of credit for being right there. That's basically his home. Outside of that is where I'm encouraging quicker decisions and quicker plays."
Vanek made it clear one good play won't put him at ease. Neither will one good game, for that matter. He expects success every time out.
"Any time the team's losing or not doing as well as you want a team to do, you look at what you can do better and contribute better," he said. "I haven't contributed as much as I want to.
"I don't think one [good] game is going to make me forget about the last 14. But I think one game where a lot of things go our way, things that didn't go our way the last many nights, would be a good step in the right direction."