BUFFALO – It’s a fair question that won’t stop being asked until Sabres coach Lindy Ruff ups his minutes.
Why the heck is slick winger Thomas Vanek, the NHL’s most dynamic presence through two weeks with eight goals and a league-high 19 points, only playing 19:13 a game?
That time ranks 56th among NHL forwards. It’s second among Sabres forwards to linemate Jason Pominville’s 20:51 and sixth on the team.
“I’m happy with whatever I get,” Vanek said Monday inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres, losers of six of the last seven, prepared for tonight’s contest in Ottawa against the Senators. “I think my ice time this year has been fine. I’m not going to demand more.”
Vanek, the NHL’s First Star of the Week, played 19:15 in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to Florida, less than Tyler Ennis, Marcus Foligno and Jochen Hecht. The Austrian had a goal and three points. The other three didn’t make the score sheet.
Foligno and Hecht had 24 shifts, as many as Vanek. Ennis had 23.
Ruff said some lines extended their shifts Sunday by getting caught in their own zone. Meanwhile, Vanek and linemates Pominville and Cody Hodgson are playing so well they’re keeping their shifts short.
“If they still look fresh, I keep trying to send them,” Ruff said.
But give Vanek more, right? Right now, the Sabres possess no secondary scoring. Vanek has a point on 70.4 percent of the Sabres’ goals (19 of 27). His line has combined for 18 scores and 41 points.
Hecht and Drew Stafford, a 31-goal scorer in 2010-11, have zero goals. Foligno, Mikhail Grigorenko and Steve Ott each have one. Ennis has two. Five other forwards have zero in 28 combined games.
“We have something special that we have a line that’s, as they say in Spanish, ‘en fuego,’” Ruff said. “Everybody else would be jealous of that line right now. But now we don’t have the secondary. So now we’re jealous of the secondary around the league when the league’s looking around going, ‘Holy man, they got a line as hot as any line in the league.’”
Ennis said about the secondary scoring: “It’s going to come. We just got to keep doing the little things. We can’t expect the top line to continue this pace. It’s got to change.”
But why not run Vanek ragged and squeeze every last bit of production from him?
It’s not quite that simple.
“I think we’re getting plenty of ice time,” Vanek said about his line. “We’re getting plenty of chances. I think by upping the ice doesn’t mean more production.”
Here’s some of what goes into Vanek’s ice time:
Vanek rarely kills penalties, although he received 1:11 Sunday. In fact, Vanek turned down more kill time, Ruff said after the game.
“He wanted me to go double-shift but our line was up next,” Vanek explained. “I said, ‘Maybe let’s hold on. I think our line’s going good.’ I think … he understood that. I think the two of us didn’t have a problem.”
Ruff, who wants to know how players are feeling, might let Vanek start killing more penalties beside Foligno. The coach has been trying to make up some of his time lost on the kill by giving him a shift with another line as Hodgson and Pominville, PK partners, rest.
Vanek has killed penalties in the past a bit, although never consistently. He scored a short-handed goal Saturday in Montreal.
The 29-year-old isn’t going to beg Ruff for kill time, however.
“I’m over it. I think maybe five, six years ago I was pressing more to get on it,” said Vanek, who averaged a career-high 17:21 a game in 2010-11. “But I think Lindy’s been using (me). If not PK, the shift after (I’m) with a different line. So I’m getting my ice time up. So that’s not something I’m overly concerned about.”
Ruff also has to be cognizant about overusing players during the compacted 48-game season. The Sabres have little time to rest.
“You got to be careful … there’s a lot of games. If you overplay, sure, you can probably get injured easier,” Vanek said. “You got to use four lines. Obviously, there’s times you have to ramp it up to three lines, some guys more often. But overall I like the idea of having four lines that can play.”
Ruff said there’s “no optimal amount” for Vanek and his linemates. He shut them down late during Saturday’s 6-1 loss.
Vanek played 23:01 on Tuesday against Toronto, the only time he’s gone over 20 minutes this season. A muscle strain had sidelined him the previous game.
“When I talk about matchups, I try real hard to put him in some situations that I think would really be to their advantage,” Ruff said. “I think that line has done a hell of a job. In Montreal, I just told them, ‘I’m shutting you guys down because we’re playing back-to-back.’”
Five goals and 10 points, including a three-goal, five-point performance in Thursday’s 7-4 win in Boston, earned Vanek First Star honors.
“I think our line’s going well but we’re not producing wins,” Vanek said about the honor. “That’s about it.”
Pittsburgh winger Chris Kunitz (five goals, eight points) and Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo (2-0-1, 0.95 goals-against average, .944 save percentage) were the other stars.