Buffalo takes Vanek with fifth overall pick

Brett Angel

Thomas Vanek made a name for himself at the 2003 NCAA Frozen Four in Buffalo, N.Y.

Now, Minnesota’s star left wing might make his living on the very same ice.

The Buffalo Sabres selected Vanek with the fifth overall pick in the National Hockey League draft Saturday in Nashville, Tenn., making him the highest-drafted player in school history.

The Sabres, who selected Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard with their top pick, 11th overall, in 2002, play their home games at HSBC Arena – the same venue where Vanek scored game-winning goals in the final two games of the Gophers’ national title run in April.

Vanek was named most outstanding player of the tournament for his efforts, and Sabres fans and management obviously took notice.

“We’re delighted with this pick,” Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier said. “He’s a goal-scorer, and so many of his goals were in crucial situations. That’s something we need on our team.”

As a freshman last season, Vanek led the nation in rookie scoring with 62 points. He also established himself as a clutch performer, scoring 17 of his 31 goals in the third period or overtime.

“It probably didn’t hurt that we played so well and he did so well in front of (Buffalo) fans,” Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said.

Vanek, the first European to play for the Gophers, wore a toothy smile and a new Sabres jersey as he posed for pictures with Buffalo management Saturday. The question now is which jersey he’ll be wearing this fall.

Although just 19 years old, the 6-foot-2, 208-pound Vanek was described by hockey analysts on ESPN2 as the best pure goal-scorer in the draft and one of few guys in the top five picks who is ready to play in the NHL next year.

Lucia knew when he recruited Vanek that the Graz, Austria, native had the talent to leave school early to pursue a professional career. But the Gophers hope their young forward will return for at least one more season to help Minnesota defend its national championship.

“I’m really happy for Thomas,” Lucia said. “I think there’s more we can give him if he stays, but it’s going to be his decision and Buffalo’s decision.”

When asked about the possibility of Vanek playing professionally next season, Regier said, “That’s something we’ll take a look at.”

Buffalo would need to sign Vanek before training camp starts in September for that to happen.

The Sabres, who filed for bankruptcy in January, were saved by new owner B. Thomas Golisano in April. But new ownership raises further questions about what the team might have planned for Vanek.

“He’s going to make his money, this year or next year,” Lucia said. “That’s not an issue. It’s about when he’s ready. You don’t want to rush the process.

“I think he really enjoys college and his teammates,” Lucia said. “But we’re going to support him in whatever decision he makes.”

Guyer, 3 recruits picked

Minnesota center Gino Guyer was selected by the Dallas Stars in the fifth round of the NHL draft Sunday morning, 165th overall.

As a freshman with the Gophers last season, Guyer finished sixth in the WCHA in rookie scoring with 13 goals and 16 assists and was a key component during Minnesota’s postseason title run.

He tied an NCAA tournament record with five assists in a 9-2 first-round victory over Mercyhurst and scored the game-tying goal in the Gophers’ national semifinal game against Michigan.

Guyer was in Hibbing, Minn., helping his father Pat with an amateur hockey school when he got the call from a friend that he had been drafted.

“It’s quite an honor,” Guyer said. “I plan to play another three years (at Minnesota) and then hopefully have a shot at the NHL.”

Danny Irmen, Ryan Potulny and Michael Vanelli – all recruits planning to play for the Gophers next season – were also drafted over the weekend.

Irmen was picked in the third round by the Minnesota Wild, 78th overall. Potulny, the younger brother of Minnesota captain Grant Potulny, was taken nine picks later by the Philadelphia Flyers, 87th overall. Vanelli was selected in the fourth round by the Atlanta Thrashers, 136th overall.

Brett Angel welcomes comments at [email protected]