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Vrbata finds fit with Coyotes once again, but not sure what future holds

The Coyotes might not be considered a franchise where a veteran would go to get back on track, but returning to Arizona for a third time has worked wonders for Radim Vrbata.

Radim Vrbata’s 2015-16 campaign was disappointing. Even he acknowledges that. Playing in the second season of a two-year, $10-million deal with the Canucks, Vrbata managed only 13 goals and 27 points in 63 games for Vancouver during the past season, a far cry from the 31-goal, 63-point season he had just one year prior.

But instead of trying to find a high-scoring, run-and-gun team to land with in the off-season, Vrbata, 35, decided a return to the Arizona Coyotes was the right choice for him, despite the fact the team was hardly in a position to compete for the post-season. He inked a one-year deal late in the off-season, and while he wasn’t putting any expectations on himself of his game, Vrbata thought the move was the right one to make at this stage of his career.

“I knew I was coming into a good situation,” Vrbata said. “I knew what I could expect, what they could expect from me and how I was going to be used. From that standpoint, I knew I was probably going into the best situation I could be going to.”

The overall results haven’t been there for the Coyotes, that much is clear, but Vrbata has been bang-on in his assumption that a return to Arizona would be a good personal fit. Entering the post-break portion of the schedule, Vrbata is pacing the Coyotes with 11 goals and 34 points, in position to have a potential 20-goal, 50-point campaign for the fifth time in his career. 

It’s hardly shocking that Vrbata has found his stride again, though. Since 2012-13, his 87 goals rank 54th in the league, alongside the likes of Kyle Okposo, Derek Stepan and Justin Williams, and Vrbata has produced at a similar rate to Ryan Kesler, Milan Lucic and Kyle Turris, having scored 203 points in 304 games. And some of the best years of his career have come in Arizona. Since the franchise relocated from Winnipeg in 1996, Vrbata is the fourth-highest Coyotes scorer with 322 points. He’s scored 20 goals four times in six prior seasons as a Coyote, finishing with 19 in one campaign and coming up with 12 in the lockout-shortened season.

Of course, in order for Vrbata to come back to the Coyotes, he had to leave in the first place. He left for the Tampa Bay Lightning after having his breakout year in his first go-round as a Coyote in 2007-08, but was back in Arizona by 2009-10. His second leave from the team came upon inking the aforementioned two-year contract with the Canucks. If it were up to Vrbata, though, he’d have been a Coyote all along.

“I never wanted to leave, even when I was leaving for Tampa or leaving for Vancouver,” Vrbata said. “We were always trying to get something done, but the circumstances at that time just didn’t allow it. It’s not like I wanted to leave Phoenix. I always tried to make a deal here first, and when it didn’t work, we had to look elsewhere. But I’m glad we’re back.”

While Vrbata’s productiveness is similar to his previous seasons in the desert, he does see differences this time around. For staters, the Coyotes are well out of a post-season spot and in the Western Conference basement. That may not seem all that new, but Vrbata was a Coyote during the franchise’s three consecutive post-season appearances, which included a trip to the Western Conference final in 2011-12. But the other major change has been in the team’s philosophy. 

Ownership issues were prevalent in Arizona during Vrbata’s first years with the team, and that made competing for the post-season a necessity. Winning meant putting fans in the seats and there was no time for a patient rebuild. That mentality came with veteran-laden teams striving to reach the playoffs and push for continued success. Those years are over, though, and Vrbata sees the team taking a different approach.

“On opening night we had nine or 10 players that it was either their first or second year,” Vrbata said. “So I think there’s a bigger plan here with those guys. It’s not just about this season or next season. I think they’re looking forward two or three years. I understood that coming in.”

Among those, Lawson Crouse, Christian Dvorak and Jacob Chychrun who’ve made an impression on Vrbata with their play, and he’s also taken note of the recent contributions from Christian Fischer and Brendan Perlini. But with the team getting younger, it’s hard to say where Vrbata fits into the long-term plans. His one-year deal comes up at season’s end, and he could be a player the Coyotes consider moving come the trade deadline, especially if he’s continuing to put points on the board come late-February. 

If he does leave, is there a chance he finds his way back to Arizona for a fourth time in his career?

“I’m 35, going to be 36 in the summer, you probably can’t be looking two or three years ahead and trying to get three-year deals,” Vrbata said. “Even coming into this season, I myself thought that this could be the last season. So far, things are going well for me personally, so hopefully that will allow me to continue. Whatever happens in the summer or after the season, we’ll see, but now I’m just focused on this season.”

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