Radim Vrbata proving Coyotes he has plenty left in tank

Nov 28, 2016, 7:03 PM | Updated: Nov 29, 2016, 11:29 am
Arizona Coyotes right wing Radim Vrbata (17) skates back to the bench after scoring a goal against ...

Arizona Coyotes right wing Radim Vrbata (17) skates back to the bench after scoring a goal against Colorado Avalanche goalie Calvin Pickard, left, during the first period of an NHL hockey game Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Radim Vrbata read the reports of his demise. He never believed a word of them.

One season after scoring 31 goals in Vancouver, Vrbata slipped to 13 in 2015-16. Analysts had him pegged as a 35-year-old forward in decline. The Coyotes would be lucky to squeeze 15 goals out of the Czech forward on a bargain basement, one-year deal that pays him a $1 million base with $500,000 more for 30 games played, and $500,000 more if he scores 20 goals or registers 40 points.

The Coyotes are probably going to pay those bonuses. Through 20 games, Vrbata leads the team with seven goals, he’s tied for the team lead in points with 14 and he’s 2 for 2 in shootouts with his patented Vrbackhander that goalies know is coming but can’t seem to stop.

“It’s funny how one year, you score 31 goals and everybody is saying ‘he can probably play more years’ and then there are so many changes on the team and you don’t have so great a season and people are saying the total opposite,” Vrbata said. “This was what I was expecting when I signed with Arizona.

“You never know what the results will be, whether your teammates will be scoring or how many points you’ll have, but knowing what to expect when I come to the rink every day and knowing the situations I was going to play in — knowing the coach so well — it’s why this was my No. 1 destination in the summer. I feel comfortable playing for [Dave Tippett] because he knows how to use me and I know what he needs me to do.”

If Vrbata stays on his current pace, he is headed for 29 goals and 57 points. Those would be the third-highest totals of his career in both categories, eclipsed only by his 2011-12 season with Phoenix when he had 35 goals and 62 points, and 2014-15 in Vancouver when he had 31 goals and 63 points.

The comfort he gives Dave Tippett can’t be overstated.

“He’s a real good compliment player and we knew he had a real positive linemate situation in [center Martin] Hanzal,” Tippett said. “Those are the hockey decisions you make when you sign a guy. The other part of the decision is he’s a real good pro. He’s a dedicated guy, a good teammate and a smart player.

“He’s been real good with some of the younger players. He talks to Max Domi a lot. They’re trying to form a good bond because they can use each other well.”

Tippett said he was never concerned that Vrbata was in decline or slowing down. He saw him play in Vancouver and he understands Vrbata’s strengths as well as any coach ever has, having coached him for five previous seasons from 2009-2014.

“He doesn’t play a fast game; that’s not one of the things you’d say about him,” Tippett said. “He plays a smart game. He adapts to different situations. He’s got a very quick shot, he’s got a good skill set, he can make plays under pressure and his smarts allow him to play the game at a pretty good pace.”

Vrbata said that in the summer between his two seasons in Vancouver, he actually increased his physical capacity. The Canucks’ offseason tests showed his endurance was better and his strength was greater.

“I knew I was in good shape but my routine has been the same every summer,” he said. “That has nothing to do with scoring goals. You need to have the right players playing with you and you need to be put in the right situations where you can be successful.”

Even though regular linemate Martin Hanzal has missed six games this season, Vrbata has managed to blend his game with the other linemates he has seen, whether it’s Domi, Jordan Martinook or Jamie McGinn.

With a shootout goal on Friday against Edmonton, Vrbata became the NHL’s career leader for shootout goals with 43, one ahead of Detroit’s Frans Nielsen and two ahead of Chicago’s Jonathan Toews.

Vrbata admits that is a source of pride.

“It’s not like I’m calling or texting anybody about it but it’s nice to have success in anything,” he said.

On that front, Vrbata admits he’s feeling a little vindicated about his production this season.

“I look at my last five seasons and last year was bad,” he said. “I think I know why it was bad but I always felt I could still play so I’m glad with how this season has started and I hope it continues.

“I think everybody is always trying to prove themselves, prove that you belong and you can do what you’re paid for. It’s a lot like when you’re younger and have to prove you belong. The older you get, you have to be proving yourself that much more.”

Coyotes at Sharks

When: 8 p.m., Tuesday
Where: SAP Center, San Jose, Calif.
TV: FOX Sports Arizona
Radio: KTAR News 92.3 FM
Records: Coyotes 8-10-2. Sharks 12-9-1.
Season series: Arizona, 2-0.

Injury report: Coyotes — C Brad Richardson (broken right tibia and fibula) is out indefinitely. G Louis Domingue (lower body) is on IR. Sharks — Fs Melker Karlsson (left foot/ankle) and Tommy Wingels (lower body) are day to day and Tomas Hertl (knee) is week to week.

Scouting the Sharks: Sharks D Brent Burns was named the NHL’s Third Star of the Week with two goals and six points in four games. He has eight goals and 20 points in 22 games. … Former Coyotes F Mikkel Boedker was benched for the third period of the Sharks’ 3-2 loss to Anaheim on Saturday. “I would hope he’s pissed off,” coach Peter DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “It’s always a last resort as a coach.” … F Joe Pavelski is tied with Burns for the team lead in points at 20. He leads the Sharks with 13 assists.

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