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Vanek puts pressure on himself to make sure season not half full

The numbers on his contract say Thomas Vanek is an elite player. The numbers on the stat sheet say the Sabres' winger is still getting there.

Vanek had 36 goals last season, not bad for a 24-year-old. But it was a step down from his 43-goal campaign the year before.

And it was a big drop when you consider the $10 million salary he raked in for the first year of his seven-year, $50-million deal gift-wrapped by the offer sheet presented him by Edmonton General Manager Kevin Lowe in July 2007.

The bloated contract obviously wasn't the Sabres' idea. But it followed Vanek everywhere and Buffalo fans expected more. After all, no one in the entire league had a bigger paycheck.

Fans expected more than four goals in Vanek's first 19 games. More than just 13 goals over his first 49. More than a player who routinely averaged only 16-17 minutes per game and played more than 20 minutes only nine times all season.

"The contract never really bugged me," Vanek said during training camp. "I always said I put more pressure on myself than anyone else. I never thought about money and that's not the reason I'm here. Now I'm back looking to just get off on the right foot, play the first half like I did in the second half."

Ah, the second half of last season. For parts of it, there was a that's-more-like-it feeling around Vanek.

He led the NHL with 13 goals in February and was third with 20 points for the month. He had 23 goals over his final 33 games. He burned Ottawa's Ray Emery with a superstar-like slap shot in one February win. He struck like a bolt from the sky for a pair of natural hat tricks to spark two comebacks against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But those were moments that only briefly provided solace for a playoff-less season.

Over the summer on his personal Web site, Vanek revealed he had a hard-core chat with coach Lindy Ruff about getting benched for long stretches of three games in the second half. Because of that, he said he's reached a sort of personal detente with his coach.

"Every year you learn something about what he wants us to do and I'm sure he learns something about what we're all about too," Vanek said. "You always need to have that mutual respect. He's the boss. It's his way or you'll be in the stands.

"I don't mind coaches being tough on me. I don't mind taking blame for a bad game. I won't take it personally."

Ruff can be tough on players, especially if he feels they're shirking defensive responsibilities. Vanek found out by spending time on the bench.

"A lot of times you want to see how a guy handles the tough times," Ruff said. "The guys who sometimes struggle with it are the ones who haven't gone through it much. I don't know if he had too many tough times in college.

"Teams got to know him and I think got to know his habits. That makes it even tougher on you. You have to battle through that because the book is out on you. Guys don't realize that other coaches put a target on you."

The long offseason gave Vanek plenty of soul-searching time. He went home to his native Austria to play in the World Championships. He got married in July and then took his wife, Ashley, 13-month-old son Blake and his in-laws to Austria for a look at his homeland.

"It was great to show my family all where I came from, great to be able to take the little guy there," Vanek said. "I won't forget where I came from, where I grew up. I took a lot of pride to go over there, help my country go up [Austria moved up from Division I to the Championship Division] and it was great."

Vanek said he worked hard in the offseason in Minnesota, his wife's home state, putting on a few pounds and working to improve his foot speed. He had time to get over a nagging hip problem that quietly dogged him last season, and now he's ready to start the quest toward a 40- or 50-goal season.

"He scored 36 goals and I know that even if he scored 56, he wouldn't be happy and that's what's great about him," said Derek Roy, his center for virtually all of his three seasons in Buffalo. "He's always trying to get better. He's great to have on the ice to get the puck to because he can do so much."

Ruff agrees. He's even giving some thought to using Vanek and Roy together in penalty-killing situations.

"If you want to get the elite ice time that the top players in this league get, those guys typically kill penalties," Ruff said. "You go stretches in a game where there's maybe eight minutes in penalties. You're sitting in that and you're probably losing out on four minutes of ice time. That would take him from some nights of 15-16 to 19-20. But he has to earn it too."

What does Ruff want to see?

"A more concerted effort away from the puck, that dogged pursuit when you don't have it," the coach said. "As much as the other team has it, let's see how hard you work to get it back. The best offensive players in this league are great competitors. Others are just average away from the puck and I put Thomas in that category right now. I want him to become an elite player away from the puck.

"That leads to more goals. He can score the same numbers, but kill penalties, work better away from the puck and be a more valuable player for us."

Vanek said the definition of an elite player can have many meanings and he intends to try to live up to them this season and put up some big numbers.

As for the other number, his salary drops to $8 million this year and he's only fifth on the NHL payroll list. No more talk of a $10 million man.

"An elite player is taking your team on your back, bringing them to the playoffs and deep into the playoffs," he said. "It's not necessarily points, assists and goals. If we got deep into the playoffs and I have just 40 goals but play better, that's a good year, I think everyone will be happy with."

e-mail: mharrington@buffnews.com

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