This week Thomas Drance and Dan Murphy are looking at snake-bitten Canucks forward Radim Vrbata, who has yet to register a point through six games this season.
“I don’t know if I will ever score again, but I will keep trying, I guess.”
-Radim Vrbata, following Vancouver’s 2-1 shootout loss to the Oilers Sunday night.
Thomas Drance (Nerdy Guy):
Last year, Radim Vrbata led the Vancouver Canucks in scoring in his first season in the Pacific Northwest.
Brought in as a free agent last summer, Vrbata provided the club with a top-of-the-roster quality sniper and an ace volume shooter. He excelled on the power play and found chemistry both with the Sedin twins and with Nick Bonino on a secondary forward line. His 31 goals were crucial to the club’s surprising 101-point season.
At no point in his first tour of duty with the Canucks did Vrbata go six games without a point. (His longest scoreless streak was four games, and that was when injuries resulted in him spending an extended period of time skating on a grossly ineffective line with Linden Vey.) So it’s pretty interesting, and perhaps somewhat alarming, to see the consistent Czech sniper with a pair of goose eggs — no goals, no assists — on the board after six games.
The good news is that Vrbata’s lack of production doesn’t reflect an absence of opportunity. Vrbata has taken 25 shots on goal already this year, a total that ranks sixth among all NHL skaters. His 5-on-5 shooting rate is healthy too, which is a positive sign that the dam will burst eventually.
Though he’s a quality finisher, Vrbata’s goal-scoring ability has never been rooted in his ability to drive shooting percentage at an above average level. Its always been based on volume rather than efficiency. That part of Vrbata’s game appears to be healthy in the early going, despite the lack of production. We can reasonably expect Vrbata’s puck luck to change if he continues to pile up more than four shots per contest.
While unfortunate bounces — Vrbata is currently sporting the 11th-worst combined on-ice shooting percentage and save percentage (known as PDO) among forwards who’ve logged at least 50 minutes at 5-on-5 this season – are a big part of the story, there’s probably more to it. In particular, Vrbata has played the majority of his season on a line with Bo Horvat at even-strength. They haven’t gelled, to put it mildly.
In the 50 minutes Vrbata and Horvat have shared the ice at 5-on-5, the Canucks have been outscored and out-possessed by a wide margin. It’s a tiny sample, and it’s not necessarily time to give up on that experiment for good, but the early returns have been inauspicious.
Luckily, Vrbata and Brandon Sutter have fared much better, controlling over 60 per cent of shot attempts — albeit in a tiny sample that’s not even at 20 minutes yet. And we know that Vrbata works with the twins, though the club is reluctant to reunite that trio at evens.
Vrbata’s luck is going to change sooner or later, but the underlying numbers would suggest that linemate chemistry is a big part of this equation too. Maybe if he stops bouncing around the lineup, the bounces will come.
Dan Murphy (Naked Eye):
Put Vrbata with the Twins.
There. Is that so difficult?
I don’t know why Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins has been so reluctant to do it. It’s not like Daniel and Henrik Sedin have been hot with Sutter or Alex Burrows or Jannik Hansen thus far. And Heaven knows Vrbata could use a spark right now.
How many times since the start of training camp has Willie D (when answering a question about why he was trying player X with the Twins) uttered something to the effect of “Well, we know what Vrbata can do with the twins…”?
YES, WE DO!
He scored a bunch of his team-high 31 goals last season alongside Daniel and Henrik. Is it out of the question to give him another look right now?
I’m all for Desjardins trying to create four lines that can score so he can continue with his philosophy of rolling four lines. But when your top sniper desperately needs a goal, perhaps you should toss him an apple. (If that even makes sense. Whatever, you know what I mean.)
I mean, look at the rare chance he got to play with Sedins on Sunday night versus Edmonton. Daniel made a slick redirection pass right to Vrbata (around the :45 second mark) for a prime scoring chance:
Listen. It’s not like Vrbata isn’t getting his chances. As Drance noted above, Vrbata already has 25 shots on goal through six games. He had ten shot attempts against the Oilers, three of which missed the net. I’m not going to get in his head and say that he’s been trying to be too perfect, but that generally is what happens to players who are struggling to score.
If Vrbata is “paired” with Horvat for the majority of this season I don’t think he’ll be too upset. And believe me; if Vrbata is upset with something he’s usually not afraid to speak his mind. Let’s not forget his not-so-subtle shot at the coach (to the Vancouver Sun) late in the pre-season.
“For me it is important to know who I am playing with and if it’s not Danny or Hank, learn their tendencies and build chemistry. That extra second can be the difference if you score a goal or you don’t,” said Vrbata. “As I said, everyone is working hard, the league is that good you can’t afford not to work hard. But the difference is the little things and chemistry and stuff can really help.”
Vrbata, like any NHLer, wants to be on a line with good players. He wasn’t overly thrilled when Vey was his centreman at times last season. He didn’t think it was a combination that worked. Listen, Vrbata is going to get his goals this season. He shoots too much and is too good of a shooter not too. And hey, the majority of those goals may come from Horvat or even Sutter. But for now, I believe he should get a game or two with the twins. It’s not like it hasn’t worked before.
(Stats in this piece sourced from Stats.hockeyanalysis.com, war-on-ice.com, and NHL.com)