It was July 1, 2008 and Radim Vrbata was just coming off of a career year in Phoenix. His 56 points in 76 games played — 27 goals and 29 assists — were career bests, his role on the team was that of a top-liner, and he was in line for a healthy raise from the highest bidder. Soon, Tampa Bay would come calling, and Vrbata would be out of the desert and off to Florida.
Then Tampa Bay general manager Jay Feaster signed Vrbata for three seasons at a total value of $9 million. For a player that hadn’t had a permanent NHL home for more than two seasons, it was looking like Vrbata had a place to settle in for the foreseeable future. As the season got underway, however, it was clear that something wasn’t quite right with the Czech winger.
Through 18 games with the Lightning, Vrbata registered only six points (3-3), and saw his ice time greatly diminished. His confidence looked shot, and many were pointing to Vrbata as the big off-season “bust” of a signing. Back in his home country of Czech Republic, his wife had been having difficulties with her pregnancy, and shortly after the season had began Vrbata asked to go back home to finish the season. The Lightning granted him permission and shortly after he signed with his hometown team in the Czech Extraliga.
Upon returning to the NHL — something Vrbata said he had planned to do when he had left Tampa — his spot with the Lightning was no longer there. His position filled, Vrbata’s agent Rich Evans was given permission to start looking for a landing place for the then 28-year-old. At the end of the day, it just made sense for Vrbata and Evans to find him a spot right back where he had fared so well before — in Phoenix with the Coyotes.
That first season back in Glendale, Arizona, Vrbata amassed 43 points (24-19) while playing all 82 games for the Coyotes. The touch he had found in that final season with Phoenix was back.
Make no mistakes about it, Vrbata isn’t a point a game player. He’ll never be the NHL MVP, win the Rocket, and he might not even make an All-Star team in the near future, but what Vrabta will do is produce for the Coyotes. And this season, three seasons after his National Hockey League career looked as if it was about to fall to pieces, Vrbata could easily be the Most Valuable player on the Coyotes.
Through 45 games this season, Vrbata’s 22 goals is only five short of tying his career high of 27. His 15 assists are more than half of his previous career high. At 37 points through 45 games, Vrbata is in the top-50 for point getters. Five game winners? That puts him fourth in the entire league.
Ask anyone who has ever watched him play for their favourite team; there may be some games you don’t notice him, but that’s just because of sound defensive play and no glaring mistakes. He’s a model of consistency game in and game out and an all-situations player. Examples? When it comes to ice time, Vrbata ranks second amongst forwards on the Coyotes in both shorthanded and power play ice time. For a coach that preaches positioning and responsible play as much as Dave Tippett, there is no better compliment than being trusted with ice time in all situations.
It’s not flashy, it’s not highlight reel material, and you won’t see many Phoenix Coyotes Vrbata jerseys floating around your local rink, but he’s a model of perseverance and fighting your way through tough times in a professional career. When most would have packed it in and folded, Vrbata not only came back, he came back better than ever.