GLENDALE Ariz. –
There are five players in the League with 30 or more goals this season.
Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos
is the premier scorer in the League and has a 60-goal season in his sights. Evgeni Malkin
and James Neal
are lighting it up in Pittsburgh. Phil Kessel
had that amazing start in Toronto.
And of course, there's Radim Vrbata
of the Phoenix Coyotes
who ... well that's just it. Who? Where?
|More Bang For the Buck
||Cost Per Goal
|*Will make $5.0 million in 2012-13
|*Signed at $3.0 million annually through the 2013-14 season
That might not be the case much longer. Vrbata's days as a well-kept secret in a desert outpost might be running short. He's just getting that good.
"It's been a pleasure to play with him for four or five years," said Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle
, the lone All-Star on a team currently tied with San Jose for the Pacific Division lead. "He is underappreciated because he plays here. If he was in a Toronto or Boston, he'd be all over the papers and TV all day."
On a team with the worst power play in hockey, one that views a 2-1 overtime win as a masterpiece and exhibits as much artful skill as a kindergarten finger-painting class, the whisper-silent sniper from the Czech Republic has already piled up 30 goals – all within the responsible, defense-first system demanded by Phoenix coach Dave Tippett
"He keeps quiet, he works hard, and he cares a lot about the game and the team." Yandle said. "I think he's one of the best players in the League, especially right now."
That's because Vrbata, who has already breezed past his career high of 27 tallies with a quarter of the season remaining, isn't just scoring any goals.
He's scoring big ones. One-third of his 30 goals are game-winners, tying him with Detroit's Johan Franzen
for the League lead with 10.
He's scoring the hard one. He has 19 goals on the road this season – more than Stamkos, Malkin, Neal, Kessel or any other player in the League. And when you consider that the three-year, $9 million deal he signed last year is just a tad less than Malkin will make this year, his cost per goal is at a bargain-basement level.
During the Coyotes' current 8-0-1 run through the first three weeks of February, Vrabta has 7 goals and 4 game-winners. Go back 11 games, and he has 8 goals – including 5 game-winners and Tuesday's game-tying goal with 2:27 left in regulation that capped a wild Phoenix comeback and set the stage for a 5-4 shootout win against Los Angeles that gave Phoenix 17 points in the first 21 days of the month.
"He always been a really good, high-skill player, but this year he's really turned into a go-to guy,
said Tippett, who plays Vrbata on the penalty kill and matches him with opposing skill without reservation. "What's doing right now, not only the number of goals but the timing of the goals and the circumstances – makes him an elite player in the League right now.
"It's great to see him getting that recognition and great for our team because he's a guy people respect and like seeing get the attention."
Tuesday, the Coyotes trailed the Kings 3-0 after one period – the kind of deficit they haven't recovered from in a nearly a year. But Vrbata's power-play goal just 50 seconds into the second period started the comeback run and his unassisted, jaw-dropping goal from a tough angle sent the game to overtime.
"Everything he's shooting right now is going in," said linemate Ray Whitney
, who is on pace to reach 1,000 career points this year thanks to Vrbata's ability to finish. "He's not the kind of guy who's hanging at the red line waiting looking for the next breakaway. He's willing to shoot the puck and he'll shoot it from anywhere. (The game-tying goal against the Kings) was just over the red line. Goal scorers can do that, they surprise people.
"He's going to the right spots and he's getting timely goals. It's not like he's getting the third goal in a 5-2 game and the game-winner is no big deal. We have close games, ugly games and he provides a little bit of beauty every once in awhile. It's a good time for him to have a career year."
He won't get rich off of it. A free agent last season, Vrbata made it plain that he didn't want to leave Phoenix and risk a repeat of 2008 – when he left Arizona for more money and Tampa Bay. After less than 20 games and a miserable experience, he was back playing in the Czech Republic and might have stayed if the Lightning hadn't given him back to the Coyotes for the bounty of Todd Fedoruk
and David Hale
Hale is retired. Fedoruk is a minor-league assistant coach. Meanwhile, Vrbata is shooting for 40 goals.
He wound up signing a three-year deal for the same $3 million he made last season, when he had 19 goals and 48 points – totals that are already in the rear-view mirror after 60 games.
"I don't know what to say about it," said Vrbata, who is friendly and accommodating but extremely reticent to talk about his own success and sees talking about a hot streak as a sure way to smother it. "Lately, it seems like those are pretty important goals. I'm just glad those goals are helping our team to get points, that's what we need to keep getting to get to the playoffs. If that's helping our team I'm happy about it."