Despite having to skate up and down the ice for drills, Vrbata appears happy and comfortable. He is at peace with himself.
And it’s not difficult to understand why. After spending time playing for Colorado, Carolina and Chicago, Vrbata was acquired by the Coyotes in a trade on Aug. 11, 2007. He responded by notching 27 goals, 29 assists, 56 points, seven power-play goals, three shorthanded goals and five game-winning goals in 2007-08, all career-highs.
After that season, it appeared the native of the Czech Republic had found a home in Arizona, but instead he opted to sign a lucrative free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning. But not long after taking the ice in Tampa Bay, Vrbata realized it wasn’t the right fit for him.
The eight-year NHL veteran played in 18 games for the Lightning in 2008-09, scoring three goals and three assists. In early December, he decided to leave the organization and head to his home country for personal reasons.
“Hockey-wise, it just wasn’t a great fit,” Vrbata said. “But the main reason I left was that my wife was pregnant at the time and she had a high-risk pregnancy, so when everything was not going well we just made a family decision and we went back home.”
Vrbata played hockey in his hometown to stay in shape, and on July 21, 2009 he found out he was getting another homecoming of sorts when he got a call from his agent, who announced that Vrbata was getting traded back to the Coyotes.
Vrbata said Phoenix truly feels like home and he credits his success here in ’07-08 to not having to fit into an uncomfortable system.
“Nobody is trying to change my game or trying to change me,” Vrbata said. “I think that was the reason why I was successful here that first year.”
Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney, who brought Vrbata to Phoenix for his first stint, is confident Vrbata will again be a good fit on the roster.
“We know what he can do,” Maloney said. “We know his strengths and weaknesses, and we think he is a great fit for us at this time.”
Maloney also believes that the chemistry and camaraderie Vrbata has with fellow Czechs and likely linemates Petr Prucha and Martin Hanzal
will be a key to success for the hockey club.
“I hope it works out,” Maloney said. “If you look at Prucha and Hanzal, they’ve all played for World Championship teams. Vrbata and Prucha are world class skill players. And to me, if the chemistry works and you have a big body in Marty (Hanzal) in the middle, I think it could be a terrific line.”
Hanzal agreed, saying that the chemistry he shares with Vrbata and Prucha is certainly a great thing.
“It’s nice because now, I’m playing with Radim and Petr Prucha on the same line, and we are all Czechs, so it’s really nice to have him back and I like to play with him,” Hanzal said.
Prucha believes having Vrbata in the dressing room is not only helping him on the ice, but off the ice, too.
“It’s always nice to have someone from your country,” Prucha said. “It’s nice to have somebody who you can talk to in your same language. It kind of makes you feel like you’re home.”
Coyotes captain Shane Doan
said the chemistry is very apparent between Vrbata, Hanzal and Prucha.
“They can pass the puck pretty well because they know where each other are, and they enjoy it,” Doan said. “When you’re comfortable and enjoying the game, you’re creative and you have fun and only good things can happen then.”
You wouldn’t think a 28-year-old would be one of the first players looked upon for veteran leadership, but entering this season he had already logged 440 regular season games in his career, and notched 105 goals, 127 assists and 232 points. Because of his experience, he will be relied upon for veteran guidance in a dressing room that still has some young players with limited NHL playing experience.
Doan believes that Vrbata is exactly the type of player that many of the young Coyotes should look to as an example of how to play a good, fundamentally sound style of all-around hockey.
“He plays so well on both ends of the ice as a veteran that he can be such a great example to the younger guys who are skilled guys,” Doan said.
Maloney says the organization is counting on Vrbata to be a significant offensive contributor in its quest to make the playoffs this season.
“He had a career offensive year (in 2007-08) and we’re expecting him to score some goals, make some plays and help us win,” Maloney said.
Vrbata hasn’t set any specific goals for himself this season, other than to help the Coyotes win.
“I just want to help any way I can,” Vrbata said. “If I’m going to be playing the power play, or shorthanded, or whatever, I just want to continue with where I left off the first season I was here and play the same way and help the team win some games.”
Doan has high expectations for Vrbata.
“He’s going to have a great year,” Doan said. “We need him to have a great year and he’s going to. On top of that, he’s going to make Marty (Hanzal) better, and he’s going to make (Petr) Prucha better, and that’s obviously a huge, huge thing for us.”