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Updated: July 1st, 2014 6:28pm
Vanek addition provides Wild with a goal scorer and more options

Vanek addition provides Wild with a goal scorer and more options

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The wait is over, so now the real speculation can begin.

With Thomas Vanek agreeing to a three-year, $19.5 million contract with the Wild shortly after NHL free agency opened Tuesday, questions shifted to where and with whom the veteran goal scorer will be playing when his new team opens the season on Oct. 9 against Colorado.

Mike Yeo joked that Vanek would not be used on the third or fourth lines and would not play defense, center or goalie. The Wild coach did point out that Vanek has more experience at left wing.

As for Vanek's potential linemates, that's impossible to say because Yeo likely has no idea.

Anyone who has followed the Wild knows that Yeo takes great pleasure in juggling his lines.

"How we piece our lines together, we're not sure on that," Yeo said. "In training camp, we're going to try a couple of different scenarios to see how they play out. ... You do something like this and obviously it's going to make your first and second line stronger, but what you have to take into consideration is that by doing this you're also making your third line stronger. I think that that's what is really important for us here."

The possible combinations for the opening of training camp will make Yeo's summer all the more interesting. One possibility would be Vanek paired with Mikael Granlund at center and Jason Pominville, Vanek's good buddy and former Buffalo teammate, on the right wing.

Yeo also will have the option of putting Vanek on a line with Charlie Coyle, if he is used at center, or with Mikko Koivu. Some of this will depend on if Koivu is put on the third line.

The important thing is that Vanek, who had 57 goals in two seasons with the Gophers (2002-04), not only gives the Wild a top six forward but he also provides the team with a much-needed goal-scoring threat.

He had 27 goals and 41 assists in 78 regular-season games in 2013-14, splitting time with Buffalo, the Islanders and Montreal. In nine NHL seasons, eight-plus of which were spent in Buffalo, he has 277 goals and 279 assists in 663 regular-season games. That includes 113 power-play goals.

Vanek, 30, has never scored fewer than 25 goals in a season, other than the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign when had 20 goals in 38 games.

Vanek's 27 goals this past season would have been third on the Wild behind Pominville's team-leading 30 and Parise's 29. The Wild averaged only 2.4 goals per game, leaving them tied with Edmonton for 24th in the 30-team NHL. Minnesota's power play finished 16th in the league, scoring on 17.9 percent of its opportunities.

The Wild expects all of these numbers to improve with the addition of Vanek.

"There's no question that we do have some skill, but we don't score goals easy and we're going to continue to try to look to see what we can do as a group to try to improve that," Yeo said. "When you can add players that bring that kind of skill, bring that kind of creativity and that kind of ability, that's going to increase scoring.

"It's not just about that player. It's what they do for the players that they are playing with as well. There have been times where we play against a team and there are some players that may need five, six chances to score a goal. There are other players that might need two or three. Thomas is certainly one of those guys who can capitalize on those opportunities."

Added general manager Chuck Fletcher: "What we were looking for as much as anything, we really wanted a right shot, we really wanted somebody who could play with top players and we wanted somebody who could help our power play. We're a team that prides itself on our defensive structure and we feel we can defend, but we only scored 2.4 goals per game.

"With Thomas, maybe that pushes us closer to 2.6 or 2.7 or whatever the number is. Maybe some nights we have a little more breathing room, maybe he gets a big power-play goal that wins us a game in the third period so we don't have to go into overtime and get to the shootout. Scoring goals is a big part of winning games and he's a game breaker. The things he does well are things that we need."

If there is a primary concern about Vanek, it is this: He was extremely inconsistent, and at times disappeared, in the playoffs this past season with Montreal. Vanek had five goals and five assists in 17 games, but had only two points in his last seven playoff games and played 12 minutes, 13 seconds in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Rangers.

The Wild, who made it to the second round of the playoffs this season before being ousted by Chicago, are clearly confident Vanek will rebound.

"It certainly wasn't my best one I can tell you that," Vanek said, attempting to explain what happened. "But I'll take the blame for that. It's not always easy moving around and being away from my family like I have been. But those are not excuses those are just factors that do factor into me. Family is big on me. It was tough at the end.

"I thought once I got traded for the second time, it took me a little longer to find a place on the team. But the guys were great and I have nothing but good things to say about that organization. I thought I was fitting in pretty well. ... And then once I got moved in the playoffs, it just kind of went away."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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