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Getting to know Vrbata

by Jeff Angus / Vancouver Canucks
Radim Vrbata may not be a household name around the NHL, but his former teammates and fans in Phoenix Arizona know how good of a player he is.

After the Canucks drafted Daniel and Henrik Sedin with the 2nd and 3rd overall picks back in 1999, Vrbata patiently waited through almost seven full rounds before the Avalanche selected him 212th overall. Although he was a very late draft pick, Vrbata has quietly developed into one of the better scoring wingers in hockey over the past 15 years.

Skill, shooting, playmaking, offensive creativity – Vrbata possesses all of these attributes in spades. He is a much-needed addition to the Vancouver roster and should fit in very nicely alongside Daniel and Henrik Sedin on the top unit. Let’s take a look at a few more reasons why Vrbata makes sense in Vancouver.

Goals, goals, and goals

Let’s start with the big one – Vrbata is a very proficient sniper. He first emerged as a scoring forward as a 20-year-old with Colorado, but Vrbata – like a cactus – really blossomed once placed in the desert. Just 12 NHL players had more power play tallies than his 10 this past season, and he is only two years removed from impressive 35-goal campaigns.

And while he wasn’t signed on the first day of free agency, Vrbata has been just as effective on the ice as many of the other big names that were signed to big deals on day one. Here’s a look at Vrbata’s year-by-year goal production compared to four of his free agent contemporaries (the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season isn’t included):

Obviously Stastny is a center and has defensive responsibilities, but Vrbata compares quite favorably to these four players from a scoring perspective. Among these five players, Vrbata’s contract is the shortest and carries the lowest cap hit (tied with Moulson). And not only is Vrbata a great goal scorer, but he is also very durable. Goal scorers are only valuable if they are actually able to play, obviously.

During his last four full seasons (*again, no lockout season included), Vrbata has missed just seven games. As we were reminded last season with the Canucks, injuries are bad.

Here is evidence of Vrbata’s aforementioned goal-scoring abilities – he blows through the neutral zone against the Red Wings before beating Jimmy Howard with a laser of a wrist shot to the top corner. This ‘instant offense’ is something the Canucks sorely lacked last season – having players that can create offense out of nothing is very important.

Shootout proficiency

You need just one hand to count the NHL players who more proficient at the shootout than Vrbata. He has scored a whopping 35 career shootout goals (placing him in a tie for fourth all-time with Pavel Datsyuk). He has 80 career shootout attempts – Alex Burrows has the second most attempts among current Canucks at 32. In other words, Vrbata has almost 50 more shootout attempts than any other Canuck. And his 43 percent shootout success rate trails only Nick Bonino among current Canucks (and Bonino has just 13 career attempts).

Among all active NHL players, only Brad Boyes, Zach Parise, Datsyuk, Jussi Jokinen, and Mikko Koivu (one hand, remember?) have a higher shootout success rate than Vrbata among players with at least 50 attempts. Vrbata also has the most road shootout goals among all active players. Here’s some visual evidence to back up the numbers:

A fit with the Sedins

The Sedins have proven that they can play with just about anybody. They have had the most sustained chemistry with Burrows over the past five years, but Vrbata may make more sense riding shotgun on the top line. He shoots right, which opens up more of the offensive zone for potential one-timer plays. Burrows is able to play both left and right wing, which will allow him to slide down to line two or three alongside both new and familiar faces.

But, at the end of the day, Vrbata will click with the Sedins because of his hockey smarts. The Sedins don’t “need” a certain type of player – they have played with grinders (Trent Klatt), scorers (Anson Carter), speedsters (Jannik Hansen), power forwards (Todd Bertuzzi, Zack Kassian), and even enforcers (Wade Brookbank for a brief moment). But they thrive with smart linemates who can make reads and adjust based on how they play. Vrbata plays a similarly cerebral offensive game – but instead of creating plays, he finishes them.

He was able to score 20 goals and add 31 assists last season playing on Phoenix’s second offensive unit.

Although Vrbata is on the wrong side of 30, it wouldn’t be too optimistic to expect a slight offensive uptick as he moves into a bigger offensive role with more talented linemates.

I had to dig deep for this Vrbata highlight – long before the days of high definition. Check out the move he pulls on the Columbus defense:

Great term

It is very rare that unrestricted free agents sign short term deals, but the Canucks were able to convince Vrbata to take a two-year pact. This agreement gives the team flexibility, which is important because two years is a very long time in the hockey world. The term allows the Canucks time to develop their skilled young wingers, including Nicklas Jensen, Hunter Shinkaruk, and Dane Fox. Perhaps one of them is ready to step into the top six once Vrbata’s two-year pact expires.

Vrbata passes both the eye test – he is immensely skilled and a very enjoyable hockey player to watch – and the numbers test – he is a solid possession player and continues to score goals at a very strong rate. The famous saying, “Walk softly and carry a big stick” applies perfectly to Vrbata. He doesn’t talk much on or off the ice as he prefers to let his play (and lamp-lighting abilities) do his talking for him. But now that he is playing in a major hockey market, his days of flying below the radar are over.

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