Kuzma: Like the format or not, Vrbata has serious — and potentially vital — shootout skills
It was another area Vancouver struggled in last year, and in the tight Western Conference, a few extra shootout wins could mean the difference between the playoffs and golfing
VANCOUVER — Long before the wheels came off and they drove into the ditch of mediocrity, the Vancouver Canucks had an opportunity to steer themselves in a safer direction last season.
With some level of effectiveness in the shootout, they could have at least made it more interesting after the NHL trade deadline instead of their slow crawl along the shoulder of their highway to hell as rivals easily whizzed by.
It was bad enough that the Canucks couldn’t score — they couldn’t do much in the shootout to bag an extra point here or there. But we should have known. John Tortorella often showed his disgust for the skills show, and just when the Canucks needed to start stringing some wins together to keep pace in the Pacific Division, he went off again in early January.
“It should be out of the league,” said Tortorella. “That gimmick should be out of the league.”
It’s not. And Tortorella isn’t coaching here anymore.
Maybe that’s why the Canucks actually practised the shootout for 10 minutes the very day Torts took issue with the shootout. He even suggested pulling his goalie in overtime. As much as the Canucks landed unrestricted free agent right winger Radim Vrbata on Wednesday — signing the former 35-goal scorer to a two-year, $10-million US contract to help stimulate the 28th-ranked offence and 26th-ranked power play as a projected linemate for Henrik and Daniel Sedin — his shootout statistics are eye-popping.
He went 5-for-12 last season for the Arizona Coyotes and was 4-for-7 on the road, where points are always tougher to garner. More important, Vrbata, 33, is tied with Pavel Datsyuk for fourth in career shootout goals with 35.
He’ll be ‘Radim the Dream’ if he scores regularly with one of his many shootout moves. And if he does what Alex Burrows and even Anson Carter did in collecting 35 and 33 goals respectively in riding shotgun with the Sedins, nobody is going to mention the money. As for the shootout, how did the wizardry come to be?
“I don’t know,” Vrbata laughed during a Thursday conference call.
“I don’t want to change anything because those shootout points are big points. When I look at the situation in Phoenix last year, we missed the playoffs by two points. Two more shootout wins and we’re probably in. I’ve had success and hopefully it will continue. You just have your go-to moves and I just try to react to the goalie and try to be patient.”
Canucks general manager Jim Benning knew what Vrbata could bring as a strong 5-on-5 presence, but was also sold on his shootout ability.
“The other thing, at the end, is he’s good in shootouts,” said the Canucks general manager. “He’s going to help us in that area.”
The only Canuck to score more than one shootout goal last season was Mike Santorelli (2-for-8). Daniel Sedin and Zack Kassian went 0-for-4 while Chris Higgins was 1-for-8, Ryan Kesler 1-for-7 and Alex Burrows — who was 6-for-10 in 2011-12 — was just 1-for-5.
The Canucks ranked 20th last season in the shootout, getting just five wins from a dozen opportunities. Newcomer Nick Bonino should help, too: the centre went 3-for-8 for the Anaheim Ducks last season.
It stands to reason that Ryan Miller should backstop more victories and that if the Canucks will actually practise and execute better in the shootout, it should keep them in the drive for at least a wild-card playoff position. And having a chance to play with the Sedins as a vital right-shot presence is not lost on the Czech Republic native. Ten of his 20 goals last season came on the Coyotes’ fourth-ranked power play. No wonder nine teams were in the bidding for Vrbata, with one even offering more term.
“I was looking for a good fit, to play on a good team with good players and felt like this was the best choice for me,” stressed Vrbata. “A chance to play with the Sedins and being in an offensive position is something I really like. Coming from a team that was more defensive minded and structured helped my defensive game. But you play with the Sedins, you will get your chances and the way they play — it suits my game. They like to get open and that’s something I like, too.”
The 6-foot-1, 194-pound Vrbata has 215 goals and 464 points in 792 career NHL games with Arizona, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Carolina and Colorado. What he doesn’t have, outside of three QMJHL seasons, is NHL experience in a hockey-mad Canadian market. Kick-starting the club here comes with opportunity and intense media observation.
Just ask the departed Roberto Luongo or Ryan Kesler.
“It’s going to be a big change coming from Phoenix, and I understand that,” said Vrbata. “I’m just going to try to be myself and come in with humbleness and play the best I can. I played three years of junior in Canada, and I know how passionate people are about hockey.”
Vrbata is in a good place, and is far removed from the 2008-09 season when he left the Lightning in December of that campaign. He had signed a three-year, $9-million contract in the summer of 2008, but chose to return to his native Czech Republic because his confidence was low, scoring only three goals in 18 games. He had bigger concerns weighing on him and played the rest of that season in his native country before returning to North America ahead of the 2009-10 season. A trade was worked out and Vrbata headed to the Coyotes.
“It was a bad situation,” he said. “My wife (Petra) had a high-risk pregnancy, and it was best at the time to go back to Czech and have the child and figure out things after. It’s different now.”
A lot different. And a lot more exciting.
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