GLENDALE, Ariz. — Antoine Vermette had half the Coyotes fan base at hello; the female half.
"It’s the French thing," Coyotes vice president of communications Rich Nairn said. "It’s the accent."
The other half of the fan base? They’re on board, too.
What’s not to like about a guy who touches the game in so many positive ways? Vermette logs more ice time each game than any forward on the team (19:05). He plays 5 on 5, he plays on the penalty kill and he plays on the power play.
He wins 56.1 percent of his faceoffs, which ranks 10th in the NHL, and when captain Shane Doan or assistant captains Martin Hanzal and Keith Yandle are out of the lineup, he also wears the A to signify the soft-spoken leadership he brings to the locker room, the bench and the ice.
"I don’t think anyone would argue if I said Antoine has been our most valuable player this season," general manager Don Maloney said recently. "He does everything for us and he does it all well."
Right now, that includes putting the puck in the net at a dizzying rate. Vermette has seven goals in his last seven games, eight points in his last five games, two hat tricks this season, three shorthanded goals and a team-high 19 goals.
"It’s something unusual for me," said Vermette, who set a career-high of 27 goals with Columbus in 2009-10. "You always go through better phases, but you wish you could drag this out for the remainder of the season."
I don’t think anyone would argue if I said Antoine has been our most valuable player this season. He does everything for us and he does it all well.
General manager Don Maloney
Vermette’s current binge comes on the heels of an 11-game scoring drought — a drought that directly followed his hat trick in an overtime win Dec. 21 at Ottawa, one of his former clubs.
"You’re going to have a little bit of an emotional downturn sometime after that, and I think we saw a little bit of that," coach Dave Tippett said.
But Tippett said Vermette’s work ethic never wavered.
"I’ve been around the league long enough, so I didn’t worry when things were not going well," the 10-year veteran said. "I just tried to find a way to have a positive impact on the game and give my team the best possible chance to get points and get wins."
Sabres at Coyotes
When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Jobing.com Arena, Glendale
TV: FOX Sports Arizona Plus
Records: Buffalo 14-20-8; Phoenix 25-18-10
Scouting the Sabres: The Sabres beat the Coyotes 2-1 in overtime on the infamous butt goal on Dec. 23, when a puck deflected into the air and landed in goalie Mike Smith’s pants as he backed into the net. Buffalo has lost seven of its past eight games (1-4-3) and is last in the NHL standings with 36 points. Sabres Fs Cody McCormick (upper body), Kevin Porter (lower body) and Matt D’Agostini (upper body) are on injured reserve, although D’Agostini skated at practice Tuesday in a non-contact jersey. F Drew Stafford (upper body) is questionable after sustaining the injury at Columbus on Jan. 25.
When the Coyotes signed center Mike Ribeiro in the offseason, it was widely assumed that Vermette would slide down the depth chart and log less time. But Vermette and wings Mikkel Boedker and Lauri Korpikoski have formed an effective line recently, and Vermette’s ice time has actually increased by nearly a full minute this season over last.
"When we added Ribeiro it was all made out like we added a No. 1 center, but what you have is just a different kind of player," Tippett said. "You have two-way guys in Hanzal and Vermette, and then you have an offensive player in Ribeiro. You’re adding something you don’t have."
Even with Ribeiro in the lineup, Vermette still believed he could be a force at the offensive end, and that has proven true. With so many of the Coyotes’ scorers in slumps recently, it has looked at times like Vermette is putting the team on his back, which, in turn, has led to the belief that he should be wearing that A permanently.
Vermette approaches that conversation the same way he approaches all other phases of the game.
"It means a lot to be recognized as a leader. That being said, you don’t have to wear a letter to be an efficient leader," he said. "I’m not a big loud guy that’s going to yell between periods. If I have something to address I’m not going to shy away from it, but I mostly just try to work hard and be respectful of my teammates. There’s already a lot of pride in this locker room."
The Coyotes have to have more than Vermette contributing on a regular basis if they are to play their way back into the playoff picture. But Vermette’s influence is a pretty good place to start.
"He’s a guy you want to imitate," Boedker said. "He’s just a very polite, very nice, really hard working guy. The more you have of those, the better chemistry you’re going to have on your team and the more successful you’ll be."