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Vanek poised to become part of NHL's elite

There's a difference between a star and a superstar. Thomas Vanek is a star. But since the first day he arrived in Buffalo, he's wanted to be a superstar.

As Vanek began his fifth NHL season Saturday with the start of Sabres training camp, he made it clear he knows how to make the jump. He can't be just a 40-goal scorer. He has to be a lethal scorer on a team that makes the playoffs.

That recipe will lift him to the elite status he craves and is primed to achieve. It will also make the Sabres a contender again.

"Besides the goals, there's a lot more that comes with it," Vanek said in HSBC Arena. "What comes with that is taking your team to the next step and getting into the playoffs consistently. That's something I'm disappointed at in myself, that I wasn't [a] good enough leader on the ice to get us there."

The disappointment of missing two straight postseasons faded Saturday. The ice surface, dressing rooms and hallways were filled with smiles, handshakes and hope as the 2009-10 season got under way.

"It's been another long summer for us, so I think guys are anxious and excited and ready to start up," Vanek said.

The left winger has the credentials to be mentioned in the same breath as the league's top players. Only four players topped his 40-goal output last season. No one bested his 20 power-play tallies. Plus, he did it despite breaking his jaw, which sidelined him for nine games and slowed him down for several more.

But when the Hockey News released its list of the top 50 players in the NHL last month, Vanek was nowhere to be found. Repeatedly missing the playoffs hurt his status, but that's not the only reason.

"The one thing we talk about is the consistency," coach Lindy Ruff said. "I still think there's holes in the consistency with his game. I thought he was a lot better [last year]. I thought he was on the right track until he got hurt. I thought after he got hurt he took a step back."

Ice time is another factor that always comes to the fore with Vanek. Of the top 30 goal scorers last season, only Boston's Phil Kessel (16:33) played fewer minutes per game than Vanek's 17:11. It's not only how long Vanek was on the ice, but when.

He started the season killing penalties, a chore he longed to do. He was potent, scoring two short-handed goals in the first three games of the season. But he was yanked from the unit without explanation, a move that stung and showed others he wasn't quite elite yet.

Ruff said Saturday that Vanek will get his chance this season.

"I think if we can start the way we started last year and maintain that level, he'll be an elite player," Ruff said. "I'll put him in a position where he'll get the elite ice time, and he's just got to give us the elite play."

The 25-year-old has zero problems with that.

"I'm ready for it," Vanek said. "I'm prepared for it. If it happens, great. If not, you just shut your mouth and keep working hard."

Vanek has fulfilled much of the promise expected when the Sabres selected him fifth overall in 2003. He's averaged 40 goals and 71 points over the past three seasons. Those stats have made him a star.

He's ready to move up one notch. Winning will make it possible.

"After two years of struggles, I think right now it's just getting everyone excited and staying excited all year long," Vanek said. "I think that's the biggest part, and individual things are going to come on their own."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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