Thomas Vanek has always been a bit awkward with the notion of being a leader. Vanek is a bright, sincere young man. He felt leadership was best expressed not in words but deeds. It was a distinction that came only with time and high achievement.

During his six seasons as a Sabre, Vanek has been harder on himself than any critic. He aspired to a high standard, perhaps too high at times. It's not easy living up to a $7 million salary, especially in an era when teams have become increasingly proficient at preventing goals.

But as the playoffs approach, we should pause to celebrate Vanek's arrival as a leader in the NHL. There are a lot of reasons for the Sabres' run to seventh place. At the top of the list, though, is Vanek's emergence as a top two-way player and a steadying force on a young, evolving team, as the centerpiece of a winner.

Vanek has scored more goals in a season. He has accumulated more assists. But this year, you got the sense that Vanek was finally comfortable in his own skin, and that he had become a responsible force at both ends of the ice and inside his locker room.

"Oh, sure," Vanek said Monday. "At the same time, I've always been the same player. I think everyone would agree with that. I'm not your rah-rah guy. But when things need to be said, if you're going well you should be able to say something. The past three months, I've played good hockey. So if something needed to be said, I said it."

His loudest statements came on the ice. Like the team, Vanek struggled early in the season. When Derek Roy went down on Dec. 23, critics left the Sabres for dead. But Vanek lifted his game. He became more of a passer and playmaker. He took off, and so did his team.

The closer the Sabres got to the playoffs, the better Vanek played. Since Terry Pegula took over as owner, the 27-year-old Austrian has 10 goals, 23 points and a plus-13 rating in 22 games. That corresponded with Ruff's decision to give Vanek the assistant captain's title after the departure of Craig Rivet.