And coming off a 19-goal season with a career-high 29 assists, right wing Radim Vrbata figured to be an attractive target when he hit unrestricted free agency this past July. But before that talk had a chance to get started, Vrbata took a curious path, telling everyone he didn't want to go anywhere.
Vrbata wanted to stay in Phoenix and was willing to take less than market value to make it happen.
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Vrbata didn't exactly put his agent, Rich Evans, in the catbird's seat, but he got what he wanted -- a three-year deal averaging the same $3 million he made last season. And as happy as Vrbata is with the deal, the Coyotes might be smiling even wider.
After a slow start (1 goal in nine games), Vrbata has been on one of his patented scoring binges, scoring 10 goals in 13 games, including four two-goal games during the span. He leads the Coyotes with 11 goals and teams with center Martin Hanzal and veteran left wing Ray Whitney to form the team's most explosive and consistent line.
"I wanted everyone to know this is where I wanted to be," Vrbata said of his offseason decision. "Even though (negotiations) lasted after the (July 1) deadline, Phoenix was still No. 1 and I'm glad we got it done. I like to play for Tip (coach Dave Tippett). I like the guys in the room. Tip is making everyone in here a better player, including me. That's why I wanted to stay."
Another reason was Vrbata's first foray into free agency. After a career-best 27-goal season with the Coyotes in 2007-08, Vrbata wanted to stay, but the cash-strapped team couldn't afford his desired raise. He wound up in Tampa Bay, but neither Vrbata nor the Lightning were happy and the marriage lasted only 18 games before Vrbata was allowed to go home to the Czech Republic.
"It was the first time I was a free agent and Tampa was the first team to call. I decided to go there because they wanted me the most," Vrbata said. "But that situation was bad for everybody. My wife was pregnant and having complications, so I made a family decision. I knew I would come back to the NHL if I could, but it was the right decision at the time."
That summer, Vrbata asked Tampa for the right to broker a deal, and his first call was to Phoenix. With a shorter term, a little more financial space and a year to miss Vrbata's scoring punch, Maloney parted with forward Todd Fedoruk and defenseman David Hale to bring him back.
Two-plus seasons and 54 goals later, both sides couldn't be happier. Vrbata is one of the few pure scorers on the roster, but he also plays an intelligent, defensively responsible game and even kills penalties on a unit that is close to a 90-percent success rate. And on a team with four other Czech players (Hanzal, Rostislav Klesla and Michal Rozsival), Vrbata is the leader of the group and has found a true comfort zone.
"It's just very rare that you'll get someone who flat out says, 'I want to stay. I'll stay. I'll give you a discount to stay. Please sign me!' I was smiling, thinking we were going to get a smoking deal, but at the end of the day we got a fair deal. It wasn't a blue-light special or anything."
-- Don Maloney
"We just projected out over the next few years and feel it's going to be a good bet for us and a good bet to stay at that level for three years. And it's just very rare that you'll get someone who flat out says, 'I want to stay. I'll stay. I'll give you a discount to stay. Please sign me!' I was smiling, thinking we were going to get a smoking deal, but at the end of the day we got a fair deal. It wasn't a blue-light special or anything."
The bonus was the chemistry Vrbata developed with Hanzal, who he was paired with in training camp in 2007 when Vrbata had arrived from Chicago and Hanzal was a rookie. The Czechs have added a third wheel in Whitney -- Canadian by birth, but decidedly European when it comes to playing preference.
"We've gone back and forth, but they just seem to play well together, and we separate them, neither one seems to be as effective," Maloney said. "They play off each other very well and they are money in the bank. You know what you're getting most nights."
Given his hot start, Vrbata's first 30-goal season isn't out of the question -- although his cold streaks can be as long and persistent as when he gets a hot stick.
"I remember a few years ago when Vrby had 24 goals in 57 games or something like that. He was just on fire. He has the capabilities of being special," Phoenix captain Shane Doan said. "The game just comes to you when you're scoring and he's the first one to give credit to his linemates. When he gets the puck, he wants to be the guy who shoots it and that's huge."