Just a couple of seasons ago, Radim Vrbata was one of the most underrated players in the NHL. When the Canucks scooped him up in free agency with a $10 million deal over two seasons, I was ecstatic.
Unless you are a hardcore hockey fan, you probably didn’t know a whole lot about Radim Vrbata before this season. A former 7th round draft pick by Colorado, Vrbata solidified himself as a top six forward during his breakout year way in 2007-08 and reached a career-high 35 goals in 2011-12. While he hasn’t been able to reach the 30 goal plateau since, he has remained consistent in terms of point production, eclipsing 40 points for the 6th time in his career, ending last year with 51.
Vrbata brings an element to the first line that the Canucks could never find in Burrows. While Burrows is a great puck retriever and excellent on the cycle, Vrbata plays a different style. Vrbata likes to camp around the slot looking for a pass so he can get his quick and accurate wrist shot off. While people talk about his ability to snipe the puck home, some forget how great of a playmaker he is too. Having Vrbata on the first line has created a drastic change, teams now have to adjust their game plan against the Canucks’ top line and it’s not just about shutting down the twins anymore.
If the Canucks’ first four games are any measure, then Vrbata is the perfect fit to play with the Sedins on the first line. The trio has shown remarkable chemistry given the short time frame. The skill of Vrbata has been evident and the fact that he is a right-handed shot has given the Sedin line a different look, especially on the power play where he can one-time shots on the left side.
Vrbata already has 5 points, including 3 goals, scoring both on the power play and at even strength. Vrbata’s ability to finish off plays with precision has been a treat to watch, although it is still early in the season and teams will be sure to adjust. It’s early, but as a Canucks fan you can’t help but feel a bit giddy.
While he has looked excellent so far, you might still be wondering if Vrbata is the real deal or if he is hockey’s “Mr. October.” Can he keep going and produce like a bona fide first liner or will teams start key on him defensively and shut him down? I think it’s unrealistic to expect 40+ goals from him, but 30 goals is within reach.
While solid performance in the regular season is important, the real hockey will begin in the spring. If the Canucks make the playoffs, Vrbata will need to produce in tight-checking, defensive games. Vrbata’s playoff numbers were reasonably respectable overall in Phoenix, with 14 points in 27 games. A concerning stat is that during the only playoff run the Coyotes had beyond one round, Vrbata had only 5 points in 16 games.
The Canucks’ first line underperformed greatly last year, as the team struggled to provide the Sedins with an offensively capable player to help them (with apologies to Alex Burrows and Jannik Hansen). At least this year if the Sedins perform to their potential we know that they should have a sniper finishing off their passes at a higher than usual rate.
Feature Image: Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press