With the trade deadline approaching, we will be profiling several players in the weeks ahead that have a good chance to be dealt by February 26th.
The last time that the Florida Panthers went out and added a veteran Czech forward, it worked out perfectly. Jaromir Jagr was an All-Star and the Panthers were Atlantic Division champions. GM Dale Tallon may have been hoping that lightning would strike twice when he added Jagr’s countryman, Radim Vrbata, this off-season. It didn’t. In fact, Vrabta’s tenure in Florida has been an unmitigated disaster, as the 36-year-old is on pace to have the worst offensive season of his long, successful NHL career.
Nevertheless, Vrbata has shown time and time again to be a lethal weapon when he finds the right line chemistry and, despite what they say, even on teams other than the Coyotes. Vrbata’s decline in production could be a sign of his age, but some teams may gamble on it instead being a product of his surroundings and will look to acquire the experienced scorer at a bargain price. The Panthers are not as far out of a the playoff picture as some might think – six points back with two games in hand as of this writing – but that won’t stop them from entertaining offers on several players, especially Vrbata. The veteran forward hasn’t worked out in Florida and wouldn’t be much of a loss for the Cats, so a trade could wind up as a win-win for both sides.
Vrbata signed a one-year deal with Florida this summer that carries a $2.5MM base salary, his cap hit for the year. Vrbata can earn an additional $1.25MM in performance bonuses and, interestingly enough, a trade to a contender could trigger one of them; Vrbata earns $250K if his team makes the playoffs this season. He also earns $250K each for 10 goals, 15 goals, 20 goals, and 45 points. With just 5 goals and 13 points thus far, he realistically has a shot at only $500K in bonuses for 10 goals and a playoff berth. This overage would count against next season’s cap.
The myth surrounding Vrbata has always been that he doesn’t perform outside of Arizona. While past campaigns in Colorado, Chicago, and Vancouver have indicated otherwise, this season in Florida has only added fuel to that fire. Vrbata has skated in 35 games for the Panthers this season, missing five games due to injury, five to illness, and another six (and counting) as a healthy scratch. Even when he’s been on the ice, Vrbata has been invisible. He’s outside the top ten in goals, assists, and points among Panthers and his impressive power play production has dried up, reduced to just four points on the year. On top of that, Vrbata has the third-worst plus/minus on the team and, as he has his whole career, plays with little physical or defensive ability. As a result of his poor play, the 16-year NHL veteran is seeing the least ice time of his career. The Vrbata experiment in Sunrise did not work out and will soon be over, either via trade or the end of the season.
35 GP: 5 goals, 8 assists, 13 points, -8 rating, 14 PIM, 78 shots, 13:05 ATOI, 44.3 CF%
So who would want to trade for such an uninspiring asset? Unfortunately for Vrbata, the Coyotes aren’t an option as they are as far from a deadline seller as any team could be. However, Vrbata has found success elsewhere before in his career and he can do so again. Especially at this point in his career, Vrbata is the perfect deadline depth acquisition: a hired gun who doesn’t need to be relied upon to be a team’s best player. With the right fit, Vrbata can score in bunches down the stretch and in the postseason. Several playoff-bound teams are known to be looking for a scoring winger, including the Washington Capitals, St. Louis Blues, and San Jose Sharks. All three teams have the infrastructure where Vrbata could settle in to a middle-six role depending on which personnel he fits best with. Top contenders like the Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning – if the Bolts are willing to bring Vrbata back for a second go-round after his disappointing prior stint – could also use the luxury of bringing in a veteran winger, but could also survive if he doesn’t work out and ends up a frequent scratch.
However, where Vrbata is likely the best fit is not with a bona fide playoff team, but instead a fringe team looking to make a minor addition in hopes of increasing their odds of seeing the postseason. The Calgary Flames, who won’t trade away any high draft picks, might be happy to take a look at Vrbata if the price is a late pick or low-end prospect. The Colorado Avalanche, the team that drafted Vrbata, and New Jersey Devils have both stated that they won’t derail their long-term plans by chasing expensive rentals, but could pursue the affordable Vrbata, while the Anaheim Ducks and Carolina Hurricanes could also be options if they are closer to a playoff berth come deadline day.
Likelihood of a Trade
Predicting whether Vrbata’s 2017-18 performance will outweigh his career production in the eyes of this year’s buyers is impossible. There is a clear need for a veteran winger with a scoring touch on many teams, including some not even mentioned, but whether they target Vrbata over any number of other options (even including Panthers teammate Colton Sceviour) remains to be seen. If anyone does come calling though, it would be a surprise to see Florida turn down the best offer. The Panthers will continue to push for a playoff spot of their own, but Vrbata won’t play a real part in that plan whether he is traded or not. The signing was a failure, but Florida can still turn it into a positive if they are able to get something back in return for trading Vrbata.