Radim Vrbata needed a jolt to his veteran career, so he returned to Arizona
He watched from afar during the absence, keeping tabs on the old home in the desert. Radim Vrbata had never really wanted to leave the Arizona Coyotes in July 2014 anyway, so for two years in Vancouver he tracked their record, followed their front-office changes, and stayed in regular touch—“coaches, people around the team, players, everybody”—deep down hoping to return sometime soon. “I learned, if you have been in one place,” Vrbata says, “you should stay there no matter what.”
Through Wednesday night, exactly three weeks into the ’16-17 season, 719 players had appeared in NHL games. Among them, according to research by SI.com, 14 are with clubs that previously employed them earlier in their careers. Only one, however, is enjoying the ultra-rare re-reunion, a third separate stint with the same team. “Must have a soft spot for him or something,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett says. “Some players just have a place where they feel comfortable.”
Why such a blissful marriage between Arizona and its 35-year-old Czech winger? Familiarity, mostly. After signing a one-year, bonus-laden deal in mid-August, Vrbata and his family found another home in the same neighborhood where they previously spent six seasons. There’s Tippett, who was hired behind the Coyotes’ bench in Sept. 2009, two months after Vrbata’s first return, and oversaw Vrbata’s 35-goal outburst in ’11-12. There’s center Martin Hanzal, Vrbata’s linemate, countryman, close friend, and one-time road roommate, whose children now play mini-sticks together in the family room during games. And, obviously, the weather. “We love the sun,” Vrbata says. “Little tough early on when it would be dark or rainy in Vancouver.”
Yes, Vrbata enjoyed morsels of his tenure with the Canucks. He praises the organization, shouting out team trainers and PR staffers, and calls Vancouver “one of the most beautiful cities in the world.” His oldest son, Krystof, began skating there after showing little interest in Arizona. He made the NHL All-Star Game for the first time, finished the ’14-15 season with a career-high 63 points, and was voted team MVP by fans. It all easily justified the two-year, $5 million contract that Vrbata had signed, “a deal you have to take,” he says today.
Then everything veered off course. In ’15-16, Vrbata's offensive production almost halved, from 0.80 to 0.43 points per game, and his ice time (16:03) dropped to its lowest in seven years. His linemates, once the Sedin twins, became a host of bottom-six youngsters. The Canucks missed the playoffs, and soon Vrbata was looking elsewhere in free agency. “One season was unbelievably good,” he says. “The other was unbelievably bad. The first season was as good as I could’ve hoped for. Last year it just didn’t work for anybody.”
An even worse situation brought Vrbata back to the Coyotes the first time. Then six seasons into his career, having already made stops in Colorado, Carolina, and Chicago, Vrbata had chased a lucrative payday in Tampa Bay—three years, $9 million total—only to leave after 18 games, sacrificing salary and returning to the Czech Republic. Eventually, his agent, Rich Evans, received permission from the Lightning to arrange a trade. Guess which willing partner he found.
“I became a free agent for the first time in my career and maybe just went for the money,” Vrbata says of his Tampa Bay deal. “Maybe should’ve just stayed here the first time around.”
No matter, for thrice will suffice. With three wins and six standings points in nine games, the Coyotes currently reside in the league cellar, but Vrbata has hardly slowed down. All four of his goals have come at even strength. His current line, centered by Hanzal and opposite young speedster Max Domi, has a solid 53.45% shot attempt rate at 5-on-5, and he's back above 17:00 in average ice time. “We thought he was a good pickup for us to supplement some scoring, allow some of our younger players to continue to grow,” Tippett says. “We knew exactly what he is, and what he was coming in, and that’s what he’s given us so far.”
Hanzal first learned what the elder Czech was all about during his rookie season in ’07-08, Vrbata’s first in Arizona. “When I had a bad game, he always let me know,” Hanzal says. “He was really hard on me, but he was trying to help me out. Even when he was yelling at me, I know he always meant well.” Presumably this also applies to those middle-of-the-night moments on the road, when Hanzal would awaken to a pillow whacking his face, because his snores were bothering Vrbata. “Guess he didn’t like that,” Hanzal says, laughing.
Fifty-seven NHL games away from reaching 1,000, Vrbata claims he hasn’t considered what lies beyond his current deal, and whether that future includes the Coyotes. But given its short term and his love for Arizona, it would seem that he’s simply auditioning for more time under Tippett, beside Hanzal and everyone else. “I don’t look at it this way,” he says. “You see what’s happening in the league where everybody’s trying to get younger. This leaves everything open for the team and for myself, see how the season goes and we will see what happens in the summer.”
At least one thing is already known. “When he’s comfortable, and feeling settled, that’s when he seems to perform the best,” Evans says. “That seems to have borne itself out.”