A marginal left winger is perhaps the one factor which may prevent Phoenix Coyotes right winger Radim Vrbata from being an exceptional scorer.
Two years ago, Vrbata pumped in a career-best 35 goals to help the Coyotes reach the Western Conference Final. Benefiting from the presence of right-shooting left winger Ray Whitney, Vrbata was set up by a crafty playmaker.
Likely because of the unsettling condition of Phoenix's franchise, Whitney bolted for the Dallas Stars in July 2012 and left Vrbata without a bone fide playmaker.
While Vrbata continues to skate with his longtime center, Martin Hanzal, limited production from the pivot may not be enough to take full advantage of Vrbata's talents.
Beginning with the season opener last Thursday night against the New York Rangers, Phoenix coach Dave Tippett placed Lauri Korpikoski on the left wing with Vrbata and Hanzal, but don’t expect much playmaking.
Bulking up over the summer, Korpikoski is now stronger to go into corners, fight for loose pucks and complement Hanzal as a productive penalty-killer. Korpikoski is clearly not a playmaker of Whitney’s caliber.
Vrbata’s hat trick on opening night against the Rangers may or may not foreshadow his season ahead. Two of the three goals came from opportunistic chances in front and reminded some of the way Phil Esposito piled up his goal statistics.
“We talked about getting off to a good start, and I was happy to help,” he said after opening night. “Our plan was not to sit back and we went after them. This is the game we want to play.”
While the Coyotes look to Vrbata to carry a significant share of the scoring load—and perhaps reach the 40-goal plateau—that may be wishful thinking.
Since he broke into the NHL with Colorado during the 2001-02 season, Vrbata has scored 20 or more goals three times. There was a 27-goal season with Phoenix in 2007-08, a 24-goal season with the Coyotes during the 2009-10 campaign and the 35 tallies two years ago.
“(Vrbata) is a strong player, and when presented with the opportunity, he will score,” said Tippett. “Clearly, he benefited from Whitney on his line two years ago, but that was then. (Korpikoski) is a different player and we’ll see what happens.”
If the Coyotes lean on their No. 1 line of Mikkel Boedker, Mike Ribeiro and captain Shane Doan to provide significant scoring, Vrbata needs to step forward. Tippett suggested that production from Vrbata’s second line is as important as contributions from Ribeiro’s unit.
Vrbata, a 32-year-old native of Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic, has added incentive.
After this season, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Vrbata said during training camp that he had no issue with contract talks during the season.
Once the puck dropped for real last Thursday night, Vrbata and his agent Rich Evans changed their tune and will now wait until after the season. According to CapGeek.com, Vrbata is in the final year of a three-year deal worth $9 million.
Vrbata is coming off a 12-goal season in 34 games a year ago. Because of a broken bone in his foot, he missed 14 games yet still added to the club's special teams. Of his 12 markers, two came on the power play and another came short-handed.
During the NHL’s last full-length season in 2011-12, the Coyotes had three 20-goal scorers and Vrbata’s 35 was tops on the team. Whitney scored 24 and Doan added 22. Whitney has since departed and Vrbata needs to elevate his play to demonstrate that he is worthy of a substantial new contract.
His stature as a valuable goal scorer could hang in the balance.
If Vrbata is able to duplicate his season of two years ago and develop into a lethal, dependable scorer, the Coyotes will benefit.
If the streaky Vrbata disappears for significant stretches, the Coyotes' rise through the Western Conference and postseason chances will be in peril.
Mark Brown is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.