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Vrbata becoming a name player

The Colorado Avalanche chose Mikhail Kuleshov, Martin Grenier, Branko Radivojevic, Sanny Lindstrom, Kristian Kovac, William Magnuson, Jordan Krestanovich, Anders Lovdahl and Riku Hahl ahead of Vrbata that year. None but Vrbata remain in the NHL where the right wing now skates for the Phoenix Coyotes, starting the new month tied for fourth in the league in goals, with 30.

(As long as we're talking about players who got away in that '99 draft held in Boston, let's also mention Henrik Zetterberg, who was taken by Detroit two spots before Vrbata at 210. Oh, and Patrick Stefan went No. 1 to Atlanta -- ahead of the Sedin twins.)

People said "Who's that?" when Vrbata was called by the Avs, and of the names at the top of the current scoring list, Vrbata's is the one that many people still puzzle over. That's probably been true for a good portion of the citizenry of Arizona, where attendance at Coyotes games has been at or near the bottom of the league for years. But maybe that's all starting to change.

As of this writing, the Coyotes are the hottest team in the league, ownership stability may finally be materializing, and crowds are picking up. More than a few fans are coming to Arena wearing No. 17 jerseys with "Vrbata" stitched on the back. The Czech winger has become a name player at last, albeit one with a name that most people still don't know how to pronounce. (It's Ver-Bah-ta, but just call him Verby.)

"Yeah, I guess I've sometimes thought, 'I've come a long way since that draft,'" Vrbata said by phone from Glendale, a day after the Coyotes had won their sixth game in a row and were sitting atop the Pacific Division. "I was just an 18-year-old kid from the Czech (Republic) that nobody knew. I can't believe it's been 13 years since then. Seems like it's gone by in a flash, and also that it's been a million years."

Vrbata, 30, can claim to be something of an early- and late-bloomer in the NHL. He scored a goal and was credited with four assists in his first three games for Colorado in 2001-02. By the 10-game mark, he had 12 points, and by the end of his rookie campaign his totals were a very respectable 18 goals, 12 assists and a plus-7 in 52 matches.

He was having a decent sophomore season with the Avs when former GM Pierre Lacroix dealt him away to Carolina for Bates Battaglia at the trade deadline, but things never worked out too well with the Hurricanes and Vrbata was traded again in 2005 to Chicago for the always nebulous "future considerations." After two mediocre seasons with the Blackhawks, he was sent to Phoenix for Kevyn Adams, and in 2007-08 -- under former coach Wayne Gretzky -- he posted 27 goals and 56 points in 76 games, good enough to lead the Coyotes in scoring.

Vrbata will always be grateful to the Great One. "He was the first coach who kind of let me be me," he says. "I still learned a lot from my previous coaches and I'm grateful for that. But I just always felt like I was kind of being used in the perfect way under Gretz. I felt like I found the perfect home in Phoenix."

Alas, with the Coyotes' ownership just starting to devolve into the turmoil that still has the franchise under the league's stewardship, the team couldn't match Vrbata's contract desires and he signed a three-year, $9 million deal with Tampa Bay in 2008. Vrbata didn't know it at the time, but he was joining a team that made the Coyotes' situation look like a rock of stability. The Lightning's new owners, Oren Koules and Len Barrie, made flighty decisions left and right, including hiring and then firing coach Barry Melrose within the season's first 20 games. Around that time, Vrbata's wife, Petra, began having complications during pregnancy.

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Feeling alone in Tampa and worried about his wife Petra, Vrbata made the somewhat shocking decision to ask the Lightning to let him out of his nice new contract in order to return to the Czech Republic.

"I left some money on the table, for sure," he says. "But my wife wanted to be around family and friends at that difficult time. It was tough to do, but I'm glad we did it."

Petra overcame her difficulties to deliver a healthy baby boy, Krystof, and Vrbata finished the season playing in the Czech League. He wanted to return to the Lightning, but then-GM Brian Lawton said "he won't fit into our plans" and gave Vrbata's agent, Rich Evans, permission to seek a new team that would be willing to pick up the remaining two years of his contract.

Surprisingly, Phoenix was the team that wanted him back.

Vrbata scored 24 and 19 goals during his first two seasons with the Coyotes, helping them make the playoffs both times. He was rewarded with another three-year, $9 million deal last summer, and has rewarded GM Don Maloney with a breakout season.

Playing on a line with Martin Hanzal and Ray Whitney, Vrbata has been not only a big scorer, but a responsible defensive player. His plus-21 ranks in the league's top-20, and he is even being used on the Coyotes' second penalty-killing unit by coach Dave Tippett.

Vrbata knows that he won't ever have a shot at being a household name unless the Coyotes have some playoff success. The franchise hasn't won a postseason series since 1987 when it was based in Winnipeg.

"We still have to get to the playoffs first and foremost. But we want to prove we can be a team that wins a series this time," he says. "Things are going great for us right now, but you never want to get too full of yourself in this league. Things can change in a hurry. But we like our team and I love being with this organization."

Looks like the one that got away from a few teams has found a home at last.