Turns out, despite the contrary postulations of Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again. Phoenix right winger Radim Vrbata is proof of that.
The skilled seven-season NHL veteran returned to the Coyotes this off-season after a disastrous 2008-09 that saw him sign a three-year, $9-million free agent contract with Tampa Bay following a career year in the desert.
“When I got here two years ago, everything seemed to click,” said Vrbata, who lasted only 18 games with the Lightning before returning to Europe. “And then when I became a free agent (in 2008) I was 100 percent sure I was going to sign here, but it didn’t happen. And when I went to Tampa it didn’t work out, so getting a second chance here, I’m very pleased with that.”
Beyond the on-ice issues that were present almost from Day 1 with the Lightning, Vrbata’s family was going through a tough time with his wife, Petra, dealing with medical issues.
“She was pregnant at that time and when things weren’t going well, it was a family decision to go home to where she would be comfortable,” Vrbata said.
Thankfully, all went well in the end and the Vrbatas welcomed a son, Krystof, into the world in March. With that load off his mind, Vrbata decided to return to North America and with the Lightning’s permission, his agent, Rich Evans, began the process of finding the 28-year-old a new team.
“In the summer, the first thought was about Phoenix,” Vrbata said. “Once we got the OK from Tampa to work out a deal, they were the first team we talked to.”
Upon arriving back in Phoenix, Vrbata noticed a change in team philosophy, one that, so far, has served the team well and has them ensconced in the West’s playoff picture.
“My first year we had a lot of rookies, but this year I knew would be different because they went out and signed a lot of veteran players,” Vrbata said. “And it shows because the veterans have been through a lot of different situations and they can handle them better than the young guys.”
The Coyotes roster isn’t bereft of youth, however. One of the youngsters, 22-year-old Martin Hanzal, is skating on an all-Czech line with Vrbata and former New York Ranger Petr Prucha.
The trio, which, despite being No. 3 on the Coyotes depth chart was the team’s best during a dominant 6-3 win over the Maple Leafs in Toronto Wednesday, has earned positive reviews and, more importantly, trust from new coach Dave Tippett: With the Coyotes holding onto a two-goal lead with fewer than two minutes remaining, Vrbata’s line was sent over the boards to help ensure the victory.
After scoring the empty-netter Wednesday, Vrbata has a goal in each of his past four games. And a hot scorer is something the goal-starved Coyotes – 22nd in the league in total tallies – could certainly use.
“He’s a very smart player, a very crafty player,” Tippett said. “He gets lots of attempts at the net and it’s good to see some pucks going in for him. He’s found good chemistry with the Czechs on that line; they do a lot of real good things together. He’s been a good player for us.”
With 11 goals through 34 games, Vrbata is essentially on pace to match his output from his career-high season of 27 in ’07-08. Surely it’s a pleasant surprise for the team he’s acclimatized so quickly considering the roster turnover and the fact it’s no longer Wayne Gretzky wearing the coaching hat.
“I have nothing but good things to say about Wayne, as he was the first coach who just let me play my game,” Vrbata said. “But it’s the same with Dave. He’s a really good coach and I always liked what he did with Dallas.”
Seems no matter who’s behind the bench, the desert air suits Vrbata well.
“This place,” he said, “is just a really good fit for me.”
Edward Fraser is the editor of thehockeynews.com. His blog appears Thursdays.
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