By John Vogl
Thomas Vanek knew last summer that his time with the Sabres would soon be over.
"I just asked what direction this team was going in," Vanek said this evening. "No one really had an answer. That’s when I kind of made up my mind that July 1 is probably a goal of mine."
While Vanek has unrestricted free agency ahead of him in July, this evening was a time to look back. The Sabres' erstwhile perennial scoring leader is back in First Niagara Center for the first time since being traded to the Islanders in October. He has since been dealt to Montreal and will take the ice as a visitor tonight.
"Last night coming in and today was a different feeling, for sure," Vanek said. "I felt actually pretty good all day. As soon as I walked in here I started to get the jitters.
"I don’t know what to expect really. All I know is I have a lot of good memories in this building, in this town. It’s something I’ll cherish forever."
There are regrets, however. He wishes the organization had done more following its failure to keep Chris Drury and Daniel Briere in 2007.
"Looking back at it and even talking to some of the guys who are not here anymore, it’s unfortunate," Vanek said. "I thought we were a good team, a solid core. We always talked about not getting to the next level, but I thought if you really look back at what happened is that Danny and Chris left at the time, and they told us to step up, which is great. We all wanted that to happen, but we never replaced two good players.
"In this league you need depth, and I think five, six players can only take you so far. The way I look at it, I wish we would have went and got two, three, four more good guys. We really could have made some runs."
Instead, the core is gone. So is Darcy Regier, the general manager who assembled the players and started shipping them out. One of Regier's final moves before being fired in November was to trade Vanek.
"It looked like I was the last domino to fall, and then things started to change," Vanek said. "It’s tough to see some of the guys go through this, but I think change was needed, and it happened."
While Vanek loved his time and teammates in New York, his stint with the Islanders had an unfortunate moment for him. Intent on becoming a UFA, Vanek turned down a $50 million offer from the Isles, and the decision was leaked to the public.
"I don’t know what the right word for it is. Unnecessary, I guess," Vanek said. "I don’t think it did good for both sides of us. At the end of the day, whoever came out with it, so be it. I had to answer the questions and move on.
"I think after that it was hard to focus, even though the guys in the room on the island were great. They understood it’s business. It’s nothing against them. It’s just I made up my mind a year ago that July 1 was a priority for myself.
"But now I’m glad it’s over with and I’m in Montreal. I’m going to finish the year there."