Vrbata perfect match for Coyotes' system

Vrbata perfect match for Coyotes' system

Published Jan. 17, 2012 5:33 p.m. ET

Here’s how Radim Vrbata’s free-agency period evolved this offseason. On July 1, he became unrestricted. On July 2, the Coyotes announced a three-year, $9 million deal to keep the skilled Czech winger in Phoenix.

That was that.

“I think we actually signed the deal a few hours after free agency started on the first day,” Vrbata said.

Sometimes, you just know a good fit when you see it.

Phoenix signed Vrbata at a reasonable price for a reasonable term that stays within its tight budget. Vrbata got to stay in a place where he has had most of his NHL success.

In 647 NHL games, he has 170 goals and 361 points. Forty-four percent of his career games (283) have been played for the Coyotes, for whom he's scored 54 percent of his career goals (92) and 51 percent of his career points (185).

And that doesn’t even take into account his astounding success rate (66.7 percent this season) in shootouts with that ridiculous back-hand move that goalies can't seem to master.

“Certain players just find their niche,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “Sometimes, it’s the players you play with. Sometimes, it’s the system you play in. Sometimes, it’s the setting around him.”

An opportunity to make an impact in multiple areas — power play, penalty kill and among the top six forwards  — has helped. So has playing for a coach who isn’t trying to make him more physical or overly defensive-oriented, as happened in other stops in Colorado, Carolina, Chicago and Tampa.

Whatever the factors, Vrbata appears to be peaking this season at the prime age of 30. His 22 goals through 46 games represent the seventh-highest total in the NHL this season, putting him on pace to shatter his career-highs in goals (27) and points (56).

“Right now, I would say this last little stretch here could be the best I’ve ever seen Vrby play,” Tippett said. “He’s confident with the puck and he wants the puck.

“He’s giving himself so many opportunities to score. When you have the puck that much, you’re not just standing around waiting for it to come to you. You go get it or you get in positions to get it.”

Vrbata’s increased production — six goals, nine points in his last eight games — has been all the more important with usual center and fellow countryman Martin Hanzal still out of the lineup with a head injury.

“When things are going very well for you, you feel extra confident. You feel you can do pretty much anything on the ice and it will work,” Vrbata said. “But the thing with Marty, is, we’ve played together during those four seasons about 90 percent of the time, so it’s a big loss for me. That chemistry is there, and he’s such a great player that the whole team is affected when he’s gone.”
That chemistry could return soon. Hanzal didn’t make the trip with Phoenix to Anaheim for Wednesday’s game, but he said Tuesday that he expects to be in the lineup on Thursday when the Coyotes host the Detroit Red Wings.

“I’m not complaining about getting to play with Radim either, because I like playing with him and he helps me be better,” said Hanzal, who said not to underestimate the importance of their shared nationality. “We can help each other by communicating in Czech. That makes it a lot easier in a fast game.”

With the All-Star Game less than two weeks away, Vrbata still doesn’t know if he’ll play in the league’s elite player showcase. Despite his gaudy goal total, he wasn’t voted in as a starter by fans, nor was he among the remaining players selected by the NHL to fill out the rosters.

He could still be called upon to fill in for an injured player, but Vrbata isn’t giving it much thought. After spending so much of his career trying to alter his game to fit other coaches’ wishes, he’s enjoying the opportunity to play his game in the city where he's thrived.

Vrbata's current career highs of 27 goals and 56 points were established with the Coyotes in 2007-08; shortly thereafter he left to sign with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent. That relationship soured after only 18 games, and prior to the 2008-09 season, the Coyotes brought him back, to their delight and his. When the opportunity arose to leave again, there wasn't much to think about.

“I’m glad it worked out,” he said of free agency. “I’m glad I stuck with what is best for me.”