GLENDALE, Ariz. — With the plethora of youngsters skating around the Gila River Arena ice on a nightly basis, wily veterans can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. While Arizona Coyotes fans are still putting faces to new jersey numbers eight games into the season, no one needed flashcards to remember who No. 17 is.
Radim Vrbata scored Arizona’s first goal in Saturday night’s 3-2 defeat at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche by finishing off a beautiful sequence in which all five Coyotes touched the puck. Max Domi’s pass to Vrbata resulted in the sophomore’s team-leading sixth assist of the season and the veteran’s fourth tally of the new campaign (one behind defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson for the team lead).
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“Marty (Hanzal) made a great play in the neutral zone to get it by them. It was a nice passing play (by Domi) and I was able to to find my way in,” Vrbata said. “I wish we could do that more often.”
The Coyotes dropped to 2-6-0, but the Domi-Hanzal-Vrbata line was active and in scoring areas all night.
After leaving the Valley prior to the 2014-15 season in favor of a high-dollar contract from the Vancouver Canucks, Vrbata returned to Arizona this offseason on a one-year deal worth up to $3.25 million. The decision was easy — he never wanted to leave in the first place and the Coyotes needed all the scoring they could get.
The 35-year-old has certainly lived up to his end of the bargain.
His six points ties him with with Domi and Ekman-Larsson for second-most on the team behind Brad Richardson (7), but his consistency in the early portion of the season has been his biggest asset. Vrbata has at least one point in five of Arizona’s eight games. Those numbers may not be reminiscent of his days on the Ray Whitney line, but they are certainly a big reason why the Coyotes entered Saturday ranked in the top 10 in goals for per game despite their poor record.
Although Coyotes fans know Vrbata’s worth because he’s one of the few goal-scorers the team has had in the past decade, the winger’s true value is often undervalued. Take last season, for instance.
Following a 31-goal campaign in his first season in Vancouver, Vrbata fell out of favor, for whatever reason, with Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins in 2015-16. Late in the season, he was no longer playing alongside the Sedin twins (or Nick Bonino, a frequent linemate in 2014-15 who was not around the following season), instead manning a more defensive role with pivots like Jared McCann and Bo Horvat.
Vrbata finished 2015-16 with the highest percentage of defensive zone starts in his career. That resulted in his worst statistical season since his 18-game stint in Tampa Bay in 2008-09 — a season he’d rather forget.
This season, Vrbata is back in a familiar city and in a familiar system with a familiar face to his left in Hanzal. Arizona has a long way to go to claw back into playoff contention and will need its young talent to carry the offensive load, but Vrbata is well on his way to not only contributing his fair share, but making fools out of those who believed he was washed up after last season.