The hockey gods are testing Radim Vrbata. There’s no other explanation.
The Czech-born sniper is unassuming, unheralded and talented. If he’s healthy, he’s usually giving you about 50 points, and he’s a decent bet to score 25 to 30 goals, too. Vrbata will be hard pressed to hit those totals this year what with the woeful, snakebit start he’s off to.
It’s hard to pinpoint where it’s going wrong for Vrbata. A year removed from powering the Canucks offence with 31 goals, Vrbata has watched helplessly this season as just three of his 71 shots on goal have managed to ripple mesh.
“Last year I was finding a way to turn chances into goals and this year it’s like I’m finding ways not to score,” Vrbata told Sportsnet on Friday. “And that’s difficult.”
It’s difficult and it’s inexplicable. In comparison with last year, Vrbata’s shot rate is more or less unchanged. Actually it’s up slightly.
Only Taylor Hall, Alex Ovechkin, Nazem Kadri and Tyler Seguin have recorded more shots on net among all NHL forwards, and only Ovechkin has managed a higher shot rate in all situations. Though Vrbata is on pace to record well north of 300 shots on goal over 82 games, which would be a career high by a country mile, he’s also on pace to score fewer goals than he’s managed in a healthy season since 2007-08.
It’s strange. Vrbata is doing his job and generating shots, but the hockey gods – ever fickle – are treating the 34-year-old volume shooter as if he were Job.
On Saturday night, Vrbata’s Canucks suffered a 4-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. For Vrbata it must have been like hearing about how the Chaldeans formed three columns and made another raid. Or the hockey equivalent of that.
In the first period, Vrbata hit another goal post. He’s done that a lot this season. The Canucks would surrender the opening goal just moments later.
In the third period, Yannick Weber scored a power-play goal from the top of the left circle. The hard-shooting right-handed defenceman was occupying Vrbata’s usual spot, except the Canucks’ reigning team MVP had been removed from the first unit before the contest.
“Vrbata is a good power-play guy, a good shooter,” Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins had explained of the decision a day earlier. “I need stuff off the other unit as well. I need that.
“We’ll see how it plays out, but I certainly have confidence in (Vrbata) and maybe it’s a short second-unit stint.”
The excruciating bad luck continued for Vrbata as the clock wound down. With two seconds remaining in the contest, Vrbata double pumped on a wrist shot and cleanly beat one of the hottest goaltenders in hockey at the moment, James Reimer. The goal didn’t mean much, but it was something for Vrbata to build on.
Then came the automatic review. Several moments later the goal was disallowed, the play ruled offside.
Sometimes the hockey gods are cruel, sometimes they have a sense of humour. At the moment Vrbata’s inability to buy a bounce is reaching darkly comic proportions, there’s not much else to do but laugh. His brutal shooting luck is like the hockey statistics version of the platypus.
And it isn’t just Vrbata’s own shooting. Though the snakebit Canucks right wing currently ranks 75th out of the 81 NHL forwards who’ve logged at least 300 minutes in personal shooting percentage, he ranks 80th of 81 in on-ice shooting percentage. Vrbata’s mere presence on the ice seems to be causing pucks to stay out of the net.
“It’s a long season so hopefully you’ll get these breaks back,” Vrbata sighed earlier this week. “Hopefully.”
My notes are filled at the moment with notations that indicate lengthy Vrbata sighs. We’ve seen a lot of each other lately. After I asked to speak with him for a third-consecutive day at Canucks practice on Friday, he jokingly invited me to the team dinner in Toronto.
At least he’s still loose enough to crack a joke and a smile, though I felt too guilty to ask for him for a fourth-consecutive day following Saturday night’s loss.
And what more could he say really?
It’s not as if the chances aren’t there. Vrbata’s shot rate is up and, according to war-on-ice.com, his individual scoring chance rate is up too — both at 5-on-5 and on the power play. Vrbata doesn’t think there’s anything that’s different really with his shot either.
“The shots are obviously not the same, because the pucks aren’t going in,” Vrbata laughed earlier this week. “There’s not much time to think about those chances. You get it on your stick and you look to shoot and your instincts take over.”
It’s isn’t a satisfying answer but it’s most likely just plain old-fashioned bad luck that is afflicting Vrbata in the early going. It’s more likely that than anything age or form or usage related. It’s worth noting though, especially since Vrbata waxed philosophical about the importance of chemistry prior to the season, that he’s being bumped around the lineup a good deal of late.
On Saturday the veteran winger was moved off of Bo Horvat’s wing, and was dropped from the first power-play unit.
“It’s tough, but I think as a player you’ve got to find a way,” Desjardins told reporters of moving Vrbata off of the first power-play unit. “Everything isn’t always fair, eh? It’s hard. We just haven’t been good enough.
“I can certainly understand why he’d be frustrated that his game isn’t going the way he wants,” Desjardins later added, “and it’s hard for him when he gets moved around.”
Bouncing up and down the lineup isn’t easy, for sure, but the pre-season is long gone and those aren’t the bounces that have Vrbata sighing at the moment.