Coyotes need Vrbata, but Vrbata needs to heal

GLENDALE, Ariz. – Remember that bizarre reaction Radim Vrbata had to penicillin last season — the one that caused a painful and migrating rash that was exacerbated by perspiration and the lack of ventilation caused by his hockey equipment? The one that caused agonizing joint pain and swelling in plenty of unpleasant locations?

Now remember how some critics questioned Vrbata’s toughness when he didn’t return to the lineup soon enough – before discovering the true nature of his illness?

Now take that information and apply it to Vrbata’s most recent injury, suffered when he blocked a shot on Feb. 16. When Vrbata limped through the hallway outside the Coyotes locker room in a walking boot recently, reporters were told that the injury was not a fracture, just a bone bruise.

Again, there were plenty of people questioning Vrbata’s toughness.

Turns out the diagnosis and the critics were wrong. Upon a recent visit to an outside doctor, X-rays showed a crack in a bone in his left foot.

“Sometimes it doesn’t bother a guy at all, sometimes it’s in a place where it’s just painful,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Monday. “He skates on it some days and it feels alright; then other days he just doesn’t think it is good enough to go. When he feels comfortable that he can get out there and do his job, that’s when he’ll be back.”

If you read that right, you understand that there is no timeline on Vrbata’s return, but watching him limp noticeably through the Coyotes locker room on Monday gave you the distinct impression that it won’t be any time soon.  

Vrbata has missed the Coyotes’ past 10 games, a huge percentage of the lockout-shortened 48-game season. All told, he has been sidelined more than three weeks.

“He was a guy who scored 35 goals for us last year so it’s tough,” said teammate and fellow Czech Martin Hanzal. “Obviously you miss the goals without this guy, but on the power play, he’s poised with the puck and making good plays. We’re missing that, too.”

That puck poise extends to 5-on-5 play, as well. The Coyotes have committed more than their share of costly turnovers as a result of poor puck management. Vrbata’s puck possession skills would help make the Coyotes a better defensive team because they would hold onto the puck longer, affording fewer chances for opponents.

“When you give him the puck, he’ll not only make good plays and takes care of the puck, but he makes guys come at him, and that makes more room for you,” Hanzal said.

There is clearly impatience for Vrbata to return. The Coyotes have just 23 games left in the season and are in a dogfight for the Western Conference playoffs with a large group of clubs, most of which don’t figure to fall by the wayside.

Vrbata has been the club’s most consistent scoring threat the past two seasons when he’s been in the lineup, and he’s done it at the bargain price of $3 million per season — a price former Coyotes winger Ray Whitney said is well below market value for Vrbata’s skills.

The Coyotes do not make injured players available to the media. Per league policy, teams must only report injuries as “lower body” or “upper body.” The idea is to protect players from opponents targeting injured areas. The policy ignores the right of a grown man to decide whether or not he wants to divulge medical information about himself, but that’s a bigger topic.

Still, asking Vrbata to play through pain is one thing. Asking him to risk further injury is quite another. Tippett doesn’t believe the latter is a concern since Vrbata has already been healing for three and a half weeks, but Whitney’s similar foot injury this season for the Stars should serve as a cautionary tale.

Whitney suffered a small stress fracture while blocking a shot. Team doctors couldn’t find a fracture initially, so Whitney returned to the ice, broke the bone all the way through and has been on the shelf since Feb. 1.

“I definitely don’t want to sound like I’m questioning our trainers, because they do a great job, but it’s pretty much the same thing that happened to Whits,” Hanzal said. “He was wearing the boot and his foot was broken, and they didn’t know. Then he broke it worse. And now he’s out a long time.”

Hanzal, who has missed nine games this season due to injury, said players create their own pressure to get back on the ice because the season is so short.

“Obviously, Vrby wants to play really bad. The coaches are missing him, we’re missing him,” Hanzal said. “But you have to take care of yourself first and make sure you’re ready to go, make sure you’re close to 100 percent.”

The Coyotes should be absolutely certain of that as well before pressing their talented winger into action too soon. The stretch drive and the playoffs would be a far worse time for get-well cards.

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