Radim Vrbata is about to get a sense of his worth. That could spell the end of his latest Coyotes’ tenure.
Beginning Wednesday, teams are allowed to contact soon-to-be unrestricted free agents from other clubs during the free-agent interview period. Official agreements, binding offers and promises (oral or written) are still not permitted during this period, but unlike past years, teams and players’ agents will be allowed to talk more specifics.
In a memo sent June 18 to all teams and agents, the league is allowing both sides to discuss the general parameters "of a potential future contractual relationship." The league tried to specify how general those parameters must remain in the memo’s language, but it left a fair amount of latitude that should allow for significant negotiations and perhaps some quick deals once free agency opens six days later on July 1.
"I think it takes some of the pressure off of the player to make a decision almost instantaneously with some of the offers being made on July 1," said agent Rich Evans of Points West Sports and Entertainment, who represents Vrbata, Dallas’ Jamie Benn and Florida’s Tomas Fleischmann, among others.
Evans said that in prior years, it wasn’t uncommon for a team to present an offer to an agent at the start of free agency that gave his client a very short timeframe in which to make a decision.
"When I say very short, by that I mean minutes," Evans said. "That’s a big decision for a player to make that will impact his future, his wife’s if he’s married, and his family if he has kids. In my view, the interview period is beneficial to players because it allows them to weigh their options with far more information available."
In addition to the dollar values players are seeking, the interview period will allow teams to get a sense of the term players are seeking. That could be beneficial to a team like the Coyotes. In the past — although some of that had to do with a lack of ownership — general manager Don Maloney displayed an aversion to long-term deals that could handcuff the club for years to come.
On the flip side, this period allows players to gauge their true worth on the open market and make a more informed decision. Evans said if an agent is doing his job, he and the player have already narrowed the list of potential suitors to teams that seem like a good fit and can offer the right terms.
Of the Coyotes’ soon-to-be free agents, Vrbata, 33, will be the most interesting one to watch. Maloney has said in the past that Vrbata was probably underpaid for his production at $3 million per year — a point emphatically made by one-time linemate Ray Whitney before he departed for Dallas in free agency.
Comparables are difficult with so many variables at play, but Vrbata has more goals and points the past three seasons than Ottawa’s Bobby Ryan (average annual salary of $5.1 million per season), Los Angeles’ Marian Gaborik ($7.5 million last season) and Carolina’s Jeff Skinner (average annual salary of $5.725 million).
This season’s free-agent class is not considered deep, and many of the best players are on the older side of 30. But because the class is small, prices could be driven up in a basic supply-and-demand economics model.
The story examines Vrbata’s production per dollar compared to the other top free agents in this year’s class. Over the past three years, Vrbata is 34th in the NHL in goals scored, 24th in power-play goals and tied for fourth all-time in shootout goals.
Coyotes free agents as of July 1
F Radim Vrbata — unrestricted F David Moss — unrestricted F Jeff Halpern — unrestricted F Paul Bissonnette — unrestricted F Brandon McMillan — restricted D Derek Morris — unrestricted G Thomas Greiss — unrestricted
Portland (AHL) F Jordan Szwarz — restricted F Ethan Werek — restricted F Tim Kennedy — unrestricted F Brett Hextall — unrestricted F Andy Miele — unrestricted F Brandon Yip — unrestricted F John Mitchell — unrestricted D Mathieu Brodeur — restricted D Justin Weller — restricted D Cade Fairchild — unrestricted
He finished last season 11th in the NHL in shots (263), so despite his dip to 20 goals, he is still generating chances.
Following the season, the ownership group and Maloney both talked of the need to get younger, so it’s difficult to gauge their interest in retaining Vrbata. But on a team short on skilled players, coach Dave Tippett has made it clear how much he values Vrbata.
Anyone who’s watched the team over the past few years understands he is the Coyotes’ best pure goal scorer. He just hasn’t had a suitable linemate to get him the puck since Whitney left following the 2011-12 season in which Vrbata scored 35 goals.
One misconception about Vrbata persists: that he wants to stay in the Valley at all costs. Vrbata and his wife, Petra, just had a baby boy (Oliver) in April, and both parents would like to stay in the Valley while raising their two sons. But after playing for below-market value for three seasons, after watching the Coyotes’ spending spree last summer, and after being passed over for a contract extension, it would be unwise to assume that Vrbata isn’t eagerly awaiting the interviewing period where a host of teams could come calling.
What would it take to keep Vrbata? Evans won’t discuss that topic, but it will certainly require a raise. Would $4.5 million a season do the trick? Maybe, but if another team swoops in and offers more, the Coyotes could be shopping for a commodity already in short supply on their current roster.