GLENDALE, Ariz. — Radim Vrbata has more reason than most to hate airline travel. His oldest son, Krystof, was born in the Czech Republic, his middle son, Oliver, was born in the United States, and his newborn son, Vincent, was born in Canada.
“When we go through the airport it’s a gong show,” Vrbata said. “It’s a good thing I didn’t play in Sweden and Russia and Finland, too. I’d probably be carrying more passports.”
Citizenry issues aside, Vrbata is looking forward to his next trip. The two-time Coyote is officially returning for a third tour of duty after signing a one-year deal with Arizona that fills a major need for a top-nine right wing where Arizona has only Anthony Duclair, Shane Doan and Ryan White under contract.
The deal contains a base salary of $1 million and bonuses that could make it worth as much as $3.25 million if the Coyotes advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
“We never really wanted to leave,” Vrbata said of his return. “We love living in Arizona.
“Every time I was a free agent, I always wanted to get it done with Phoenix and for some reason it didn’t happen so we had to go with different options. I never even wanted to let it get to free agency so when that happened, I still always checked if there was one last option not to leave.”
The structure of Vrbata’s deal made it a low-risk gamble for the Coyotes. On top of the base salary, if Vrbata plays 30 games he’ll earn $500,000 in bonuses (he gets $250,000 of that total at 10 games). If he reaches 20 goals or 40 points he’ll earn another $500,000. The rest of the incentives are playoff-related ($250,000 for qualifying, $250,000 for each round won).
“It’s a fit,” Coyotes GM John Chayka said. “He’s at an age where you’re able to create an incentivized structure like that. The ability to have some ingenuity in the deal and to structure a deal like this is good for both the player and the team so we took advantage of that. We hope he gets his bonuses.”
Vrbata, 35, has played two separate stints (six seasons) for the Coyotes. He posted then career-highs in goals (27) and points (56) in 2007-08, and then signed a three-year deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. That proved to be a bad situation with a team that finished with the NHL’s second-worst record, and Vrbata wound up finishing the season playing in the Czech Republic.
In the 2009 offseason, Tampa traded him back to the Coyotes and he enjoyed a renaissance year. In 2011-12, with playmaking left wing Ray Whitney on his line and Martin Hanzal at center, he posted a career-high 35 goals and 62 points as the Coyotes advanced to the Western Conference Final.
He had 12 goals and 28 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, and 20 goals and 51 points playing with mostly AHL-caliber off wings in 2013-14. He became a free agent after that season and was willing to remain with the Coyotes for essentially no raise on his previous three-year, $9 million deal, but the Coyotes offered him less average annual salary and he eventually signed a two-year, $10 million deal with Vancouver.
In his first season with the Canucks, Vrbata had 31 goals and a career-high 63 points playing much of the year alongside the Sedin twins and another chunk with Nick Bonino, but coach Willie Desjardins made the curious decision to split up Vrbata from the Sedins last season for balance, playing Vrbata with inexperienced centers such as Bo Horvat and Jared McCann (Bonino was traded). He slipped to 13 goals and 27 assists.
“My second season, I knew they were probably looking for somebody else to play with Danny and Hank (Sedin) but I was surprised when Nick was (traded),” Vrbata said. “I knew I had to find chemistry with somebody else and obviously that didn’t happen for most of the season.”
Vrbata is a goal scorer — a player adept at finding the open spaces in the offensive zone. He needs a playmaker to get him the puck in those spaces and at the right time. Vrbata said that before he signed the deal with the Coyotes, he reached out to coach Dave Tippett to see if he was on board with the signing and to explore what sort of role he would have upon his return. He was satisfied that his role wouldn’t change much.
“It’s logical to think he might go back beside (center Martin) Hanzal because he had some success there, but Duclair had success there, too, and one of the kids may come up and have success, too,” Tippett said. “What I would say about Radim is he’s a smart player that adapts to situations. Positionally, he’s a good fit for us as a right-handed skill shot, but I think he’s got to play on a line that has the ability to control the puck so that they get shots.
“Vrby’s best year here was with Hanzal and Whitney. Whits is really clever with the puck and Hanzal drives the net to open up space and that was a good fit that allowed him to capitalize on opportunities.”
If Vrbata ends up playing with Hanzal, he’ll need a suitable left wing and Tippett acknowledged that Max Domi is one possibility.
“I remember playing with Max in those preseason games my last year in Phoenix before he got sent down (to the OHL),” Vrbata said. “He’s got so much upside and he is such a fun player to watch. I’ve seen the passes he’s able to make so that’s something that would be really exciting for me.”
Vrbata’s agent, Rich Evans, said last month that he was in serious negotiations with four teams, and that number whittled to two recently. Vrbata understood that at age 35, his options would be limited, with many teams embracing a cheaper youth movement due to cap constraints. Vrbata was seriously considering an offer from one other team, but there were issues to be worked out and he couldn’t afford any more time with his oldest son already starting school.
When the Coyotes reached out with an offer, Evans said the two sides came to an agreement quickly. Vrbata laughed and said it took about “five or 10 minutes.”
Vrbata is still in the Czech Republic sorting out visa issues and planning for Krystof’s school switch (school has already started in the Czech Republic). He plans to arrive in Arizona sometime between Sept. 10 and 15.
“The whole family is excited about coming back to Phoenix,” he said. “I’m glad I waited and it worked out.”