Kuzma: Vrbata signing buoys 28th-ranked Canucks offence


Two years, $10M: Free agent decides to take up the challenge of getting Vancouver back into the playoffs

The Vancouver Canucks have inked Radim Vrbata, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes, to a two-year contract.

The Vancouver Canucks have inked Radim Vrbata, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes, to a two-year contract.

Photograph by: AP Photo, Ross D. Franklin

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Dollar signs and a starting role sold Ryan Miller on plunging head first into the Vancouver fishbowl.

A suitable contract with sufficient term, style of play and projected linemates would determine whether unrestricted free agent Radim Vrbata would choose the Canucks or other serious suitors like the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, San Jose Sharks and Arizona Coyotes, who made an effort to re-sign the winger.

He chose Vancouver.

Vrbata received a two-year, $10-million-US deal from the Canucks on Wednesday night — $4 million and a $1-million bonus annually plus a limited no-trade clause — and it’s a win-win situation. The player gets a boost from his expiring $3-million deal and the Canucks get the bridge contract they needed so younger wingers like Hunter Shinkaruk and Jake Virtanen can develop and eventually transition into the lineup. Vrbata’s agent, Rich Evans of Surrey, said he had another offer for longer term, but too much added up to the right fit here.

“Vancouver is a good fit in terms of an opportunity to play with elite players he thinks he’s going to have a lot of success with,” said Evans. “The numbers ended up being something that was worth looking at as well and it came together. We had an offer for a longer term, but he just felt like this was the better situation.”

So for now, it’s about Miller keeping the Canucks in games and Vrbata trying to win them next season in the ultra-tough Pacific Division.

Canucks general manager Jim Benning wasn’t here then, but he is now. And after a strong draft weekend in which he gained salary cap space by trading Ryan Kesler and Jason Garrison — and landing former WHL sniper Linden Vey with another deft move — he has hit the daily double by landing a top-six winger. The price is steep but the logic is solid. Benning has to rebuild this team on the fly and try to get back to the playoffs. Quite the mandate.

For Vrbata to be at his productive best, the former 35-goal scorer will need instant chemistry with a playmaker because if there’s not a comfort level, his consistency will wane. He didn’t score in his last dozen outings last season. Then again, he’s sneaky and streaky and had four goals in a four-game span. The better the players, the better Vrbata played.

“He played with Ray Whitney and he plays the game similar to the way the Sedins play,” added Evans. “It’s a very cerebral game backed up by a lot of skill. ... We think Radim playing with offensive players is just going to lead to success for him. He can find the right spots if someone can get him the puck — he scores goals.”

It’s why the 33-year-old Czech Republic native became one of the first to be pursued heavily in the secondary free-agent market. He could score 30-35 goals next season. Or he could score 20 like he did last season, with half of those coming on the fourth-rated power play. Give him a savvy set-up linemate like he had in Whitney and it could be interesting.

However, the Canucks don’t have that proven veteran passing presence on their projected second line, although 20 of the 49 points Nick Bonino collected with the Anaheim Ducks last season were on the power play. Or Vrbata could wind up playing with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, and that would be music to any player looking for a contract beyond this one.

The Canucks kept pitching for Vrbata, who they see as a second-unit power-play presence. And Vrbata had the leverage. Brian Gionta, 35, got $4.5 million annually for three years from the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday after 18 goals with the Montreal Canadiens.

After giving Miller his $6 million annually over the next three years, Benning still has enough wiggle room to sign restricted free agents Zack Kassian, Chris Tanev and Vey.

The coaching staff and players will like the fact the Vrbata is old school. He’s honest, a good quote, amiable, analytical and will be as good in the room.

With new coach Willie Desjardins pledging more flow and go, it piqued the curiosity of those looking for work, including Vrbata. That’s one big win. Another was getting another free agent to commit to a Vancouver market that was theatre of the bizarre last season — strange systems, odd coaching, ice-time decisions and no playoffs — and it took more than dollars. It took sense.

The Canucks’ best spin was last season was a giant mulligan. The worst reality is that this is a long work in progress with no prospect of returning to the playoffs unless the Canucks get big bounce-back years from the Sedins and Alex Burrows to overshadow the loss of leading scorer Kesler. Vrbata has obviously taken that on as a challenge, not a hindrance.

“I also represent Jamie and Jordie Benn (Dallas Stars) and they played for Willie in Texas and had nothing but great things to say about him, and that was helpful,” added Evans. “And it’s a fresh start for everybody, even the new guys, and that is very appealing to Radim.”

To improve a 26th-ranked offence and 28th-ranked power play, the Canucks expect to exit their zone better with a style more conducive for those who can move the puck. By gaining the offensive zone through speed and transition — instead of dumping pucks in and having three forwards below the goalie fishing for a turnover — that promise is going to resonate with any skilled player. Especially Vrbata. Placing a bigger emphasis on shooting than shot-blocking won’t hurt.

OF NOTE — The Canucks added to their franchise depth Wednesday by signing centres Dustin Jeffrey, 26, and Cal O’Reilly, 27, and defenceman Bobby Sanguinetti, 26.

Jeffrey has 17 goals and 31 points in 124 career NHL games and split last season between the Pittsburgh Penguins, Dallas Stars and AHL Texas Stars, where he had four goals and 10 points in 21 games and played for Desjardins. The 6-foot-1, 205 pound Sarnia, Ont. native was the 171st selection by the Penguins in the 2007 draft.

O’Reilly has 13 goals and 41 points in 113 career NHL games with the Nashville Predators, Arizona Coyotes and Penguins. He split last season between Magnitogorsk of the KHL and the Utica Comets, where he had seven goals and 52 points for returning coach Travis Green. The 6-foot, 188 pound Toronto native was drafted 150th overall by the Predators in 2005.

Sanguinetti has two goals and six points in 45 career NHL games with the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes. He spent last season with Moscow Oblast of the KHL and had two goals and seven points in 15 games. The 6-foot-3, 190 pound Trenton, N.J. native was the 21st overall pick by the Rangers in the 2006 draft.



The Vancouver Canucks have inked Radim Vrbata, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes, to a two-year contract.

The Vancouver Canucks have inked Radim Vrbata, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes, to a two-year contract.

Photograph by: AP Photo, Ross D. Franklin

The Vancouver Canucks have inked Radim Vrbata, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes, to a two-year contract.
The Vancouver Canucks have inked Radim Vrbata, formerly of the Arizona Coyotes, to a two-year contract (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images).
Radim Vrbata #17 of the Phoenix Coyotes skates with the puck defended by Dan Hamhuis #2 of the Vancouver Canucks. The Canucks have reportedly signed the forward on Wednesday.
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