To really understand what makes Radim Vrbata’s success this season so impeccable is to go all the way back to 2008, when a 27-year-old Vrbata was one of the lesser known yet still cherished free agents.
Coming off a career high 27 goals and 29 assists for 56 points, Vrbata embodied the spirit of a player hitting his prime. He was rewarded for his play on July 1, 2008, when the Tampa Bay Lightning signed him to a three-year, $9 million contract. What should have been the next great chapter of his career turned into a nightmare scenario, which saw him out of Tampa Bay and back in the desert in 2009.
Vrbata played only 18 games in Tampa, scoring three times and registering six points, far off the pace expected of a player coming off of career highs. Just one week into December, Vrbata went to ownership and requested that he be able to return back to his native Czech Republic for personal reasons.
Then-Lightning owner Oren Koules assured media it was a mutual agreement, as did Tampa’s GM at the time, Brian Lawton. Vrbata returned to the Czech Republic and played out the remainder of the season. The following year it would be revealed that Vrbata returned due to complications in his wife’s pregnancy.
When 2009 rolled around and Vrbata prepared to return to the NHL, Lawton told the Czech winger that his services were no longer needed and that, when he returned, there would be no place for him in the lineup. Just one season after signing his first major deal, Vrbata had no home in the NHL.
Vrbata’s agent, Rich Evans, was given permission by Lawton to seek a deal for the forward. Evans did his part and set up a homecoming of sorts – Vrbata headed back to Phoenix.
Over the course of the next five years, Vrbata became arguably the go-to guy on the Coyotes. He followed his six-points-in-18-games performace in Tampa with 43 over the course of a full season with the Coyotes in 2009-10. Vrbata was back, and his best was yet to come.
In 2011-12, Vrbata had the season that put him on the map. In 77 games, at 30 years old, Vrbata posted new career highs with 35 goals and 62 points. In the lockout season of 2012-13, he scored 12 goals in 34 games, and set a career high last season with 31 assists. Which brings us to today.
Vrbata, who had never been prolific outside of Phoenix, became a free agent at the end of 2013-14 and signed with the Vancouver Canucks. At two years and $10 million, it was the most lucrative deal of his career – and he signed it as a 33-year-old. There was little certainty about where he would play in the Canucks lineup and, for some, the thought was that no matter where he played he could never produce like his desert days.
Well, after 19 games in Vancouver, Vrbata is on pace to smash his career high for goals. With 10 already, the winger has found an incredible fit alongside the Sedintwins and there’s absolutely no reason to believe his scoring will slow anytime soon. Take his shooting percentage as evidence.
Over the course of his career, Vrbata’s on-ice shooting percentage has generally sat between 7 to 8 percent. Currently sitting at 7.81 percent, it’s not high enough to warrant a massive slide, which makes his current point pace more than sustainable. And though his individual shooting percentage is rather high – as of Monday he sits at 15.4 percent at 5-on-5 and 15.6 in all situations – even a nominal decrease shouldn’t hurt his production too much when you take into consideration his current lack of assists. The reason for the shooting percentage increase could be due to experiencing somewhat of a “Sedin bump,” if you will.
Even if Vrabta’s shooting percentage regresses by half, it’ll be higher than his 2011-12 total, the season in which he potted 35. On top of that, he’s on pace to take more shots – albeit by one – at 5-on-5 than the 163 he took that season. And on the power play, he’s on pace to destroy his 44 shots in 2011-12 by nearly 40. All this adds up to a more productive, more fearsome Vrbata.
After six seasons in Glendale, there was reason to believe the newly minted $5 million man couldn’t produce outside of the desert, and his stint in Tampa Bay was all the proof some needed. But Vrbata is out to prove that he’s no desert mirage. If he keeps this up, he’ll show everyone he’s the real deal.