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Vanek makes quite a first impression Rookie comes out firing for Sabres in preseason

Wondering how good Thomas Vanek is? Try this: After only two weeks and four preseason games, Lindy Ruff said he's never coached a more skilled Buffalo Sabre.

"He's probably the most all-around gifted player I've been around," Ruff said Monday.

Vanek knows how to make an impact. He's had success everywhere, from juniors to college to the minor leagues. It's continuing in the NHL.

No player has more goals in the preseason than Vanek, who's tied for the lead with five in four games. Sure it's just the preseason, but the net doesn't shrink when the puck drops for real next week.

"It's not a fluke that he's leading the NHL in goals in the preseason," said Sabres co-captain Daniel Briere, Vanek's usual center. "A lot of people will say, 'It's only preseason,' and yes, they're right, but you still have to do it, and there's not too many guys that are able to do it.

"We can't get too excited, but it's fun to see."

It's tough to tell if Vanek is excited about his start. The 21-year-old left wing has displayed a laid-back, go-with-the-flow attitude during his short time with the Sabres.

That continued Monday at the Amherst Pepsi Center as the Sabres prepared for tonight's game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs (7:30 p.m., Radio 550 AM).

"I've been fortunate to be in the right spot a few times, but there's nothing I've done different or anything," said Vanek, who skipped practice with a slightly strained hip. "It's definitely a little harder than the
AHL, and I expect it to become a little bit harder when the season actually starts. But so far everything's been good, and hopefully I can do the same thing when the regular season starts."

So far, when Vanek shoots, he doesn't miss. He's connecting on an astounding 38.5 percent of his 13 shots.

"He has been as good as his stats," Ruff said. "He's a guy that has what a lot of different goal-scorers have: He's got a real good knack around the net. He's got a willingness to take it to places where he could get seriously run over but doesn't seem to most times. He's got (a Dave) Andreychuk ability around the front of the net on the power play, and he's got a great shot."

Vanek's size helps contribute to his fearlessness in front. At 6-foot-2, 207 pounds, he's a chore for opposing defensemen. But mere size doesn't fill the net. It takes knowing where to set up that frame. Vanek knows.

"He's great at finding the holes," Briere said. "He has a knack for being able to be in the right place at the right time, knowing where the puck's going to pop. It's something you can't teach. You can work as hard as you want, you can have all the skills in the world -- although he has a lot of skills on top of that -- but he's very good at being at the right place. He's a goal-scorer."

There's no doubt Vanek will be in the Sabres' opening night lineup. Well, no doubt for anybody besides the rookie-to-be. He's residing in a local hotel, and he said it's too early to start looking for a home or apartment because he's says he still has doubts about making the team.

"Obviously, the goal is being here in Buffalo," Vanek said, "but in the end I've still got to wait."

The wait will end in a few days. And if Vanek is as talented as Ruff says and the numbers indicate, success will continue to follow the former NCAA champion and Rochester scoring leader.

"I know he'll be able to do it in the NHL, too," Briere said. "There's no doubt in my mind he'll be able to play the same kind of game he's been playing."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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