Thomas Vanek scored his 11th on the year yesterday, his 11th in 11 games as the Sabres beat the New York Islanders. Even as Buffalo now sit at 5-6-1 and last place in the Northeast Division, the Austrian has been the league's most productive player this season.
He's leading the league in scoring with 11 goals and 23 points, topping both categories with breathing room in both. He's also been on the ice for 27 goals for his club, and 20 of those at even strength. Both of those marks top the league as well, as Vanek has played heavy minutes on a less-than-impressive Buffalo roster, carrying a first line with him, Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville to some early season individual success.
As noted, though, the Sabres are two games below .500, (5-6-1 really means 5-7, no matter what Gary Bettman tries to tell me) and have been getting poor play from the rest of their lineup. While the team's top line has 22 goals already on the season, the remaining Sabres' combined have eight. Despite Steve Ott and John Scott being as tough as they were advertised in the offseason, the Sabres just can't buy a break: Ryan Miller is 20th in the early going among NHL starters in even strength save percentage at .911, well below his own individual career norms.
This morning, Buffalo News columnist Bucky Gleason absolutely ripped apart Terry Pegula, Darcy Regier and Lindy Ruff and the honeymoon phase surrounding Pegula's purchase of the Sabres appears to be over. It's true that Regier has failed to surround Vanek with adequate talent, or at least Vanek's line, and the secondary scorers on the Sabres pose no real significant threat. Rookie Mikhail Grigorenko has been given his fair share of offensive minutes at even strength but still hasn't adjusted to the NHL pace. Drew Stafford, second on the squad in scoring last season, has yet to light the lamp despite taking 33 shots already this season.
The problems in Buffalo are documented, and I find it amazing that despite this, Vanek continues to pile up points. It needs to be clear he's not just scoring snack goals out there, feeding on defensive complacency of leading teams. He scored two late third period goals the other night against Montreal, including one on a scramble with two seconds on the clock, to tie the game and send it to a shootout. He scored this excellent dagger goal against Boston last week to complete his hat-trick:A video or other embedded content has been hidden. Click here to view it.
But can he keep it up?
History suggests that no, Thomas Vanek will probably not continue along a goal-a-game pace. It's unsustainable, but it's a whole lot of fun, because the excellent work Vanek puts in to scoring goals can be better appreciated when the goals go in as opposed to when they don't.
With Thomas Vanek on the ice at even strength, the Sabres are scoring on 17.2% of all their shots. The highest full-season shooting percentage of that capacity in the last five seasons is Henrik Sedin's 13.6% in the 2010 season, the one he won the Art Ross. Individually, Thomas Vanek's shooting percentage is 24.4%—his highest career shooting success rate is 19.0% in the 2009 season and his career rate is 15.4%.
In the last four years, the highest Vanek's shooting percentage has climbed in any 48-game segment is 19.7% (calculated using NHL.com game logs). He's not going to keep this up, and poolies banking on Vanek for points ought to take note. He's a great player, but not one who is historically on the Top 30 NHL scorers list (his only appearance in four years was in 2011 when he was 17th) and several seasons should be the base of our perception of a player rather than the first 11 games of a shortened season.
For a Sabres fan, while it is bad news that Vanek won't keep up this torrid pace, the good news is that Drew Stafford is due, just as Phil Kessel earned his first goal last week after hitting 30 shots, Stafford has zero goals in 33 attempts so far this season, and eventually he could catch fire.