Radim Vrbata Making Noise In The NHL

By Brandon LeBourveau
The ride for Radim Vrbata has been a long one, but he certainly seems to be headed down the right path. After being selected in the first round (18th Overall) of the 1998 CHL Import Draft by the Hull Olympiques of the QMJHL, Vrbata enjoyed a successful first season in North America during 1998-99. The 6’0 175 pound native of Mlada Boleslav, Czech Republic recorded 22 goals, 60 points and 16 penalty minutes in 54 games that season. His rookie point total doesn’t rank anywhere close to the league’s rookie record, but it was a good season for him in the eyes of many. He learned how to adapt to the smaller sized North America rinks, as well as the more physical brand of hockey that is played on this side of the Atlantic. Vrbata was ranked 48th overall among North American skaters by Central Scouting for the 1999 Draft, but the speedy Czech winger found himself waiting until the 7th round to hear his name as the Colorado Avalanche took a flyer on the kid at 212th overall. The reason for dropping to the bottom of the 7th round is clear. This was yet another case of scouts overlooking a high-scoring player from the QMJHL who lacked NHL-caliber size.

The following season, in 1999-00, Radim was back in the QMJHL with the Olympiques and improved on his rookie season totals by 14 points. In 58 games, he scored 29 goals and added 45 assists for 74 points. Vrbata had 12 points during 15 playoff games that same year, but Hull wasn’t able to go all the way during the playoffs. That summer, the Olympiques dealt him to the Shawinigan Cataractes, a move that definitely turned out to be a good one for Vrbata. Playing on the top line for the Cataractes and receiving a lot of ice time helped Radim breakout with a superb effort during the 2000-01 season. He registered career highs in goals, assists, points and penalty minutes, with 56 goals, 64 assists, 120 points and 67 penalty minutes in 55 games. After Shawinigan’s season was complete, the Right Winger signed a contract with the Colorado Avalanche and played 1 game during the playoffs for the Hershey Bears of the AHL, Colorado’s top minor league affiliate. Vrbata notched 1 assist and 2 penalty minutes during the game.

After a pretty good training camp with the Avalanche this year, the team felt it was best for the future of Radim Vrbata to send him down to the minors to adapt to professional hockey while also receiving a lot of ice-time. Through 18 games in the AHL for Radim, he led all AHL rookies in scoring, as well as the whole Hershey team with 8 goals and 12 assists for 20 points. While Vrbata was leading the way offensively down on the farm, “offense” was not a word that was frequently being used in Colorado. The Avalanche were having a tough time scoring goals, and with Alex Tanguay sidelined with a sinus problem and Peter Forsberg back home in Sweden taking a break from the game of hockey, that didn’t help their chances at all. That’s when the desperate-for-offense Avalanche gave the call to Vrbata.

Called up earlier that day, the 20 year old found himself playing his first NHL game at Madison Square Garden on a line with Joe Sakic and Milan Hejduk that same night against the New York Rangers. Vrbata was quiet during the first half of the first period, but he got an opportunity on the power play with about 7 minutes left in the period and the Avs down by 1 after Mikael Samuelsson’s 1st NHL goal (a shorthanded tally) snapped Patrick Roy’s bid for a 4th consecutive shutout. Vrbata took a bad angle shot on Mike Richter from the side of the net, but was able to get the rebound a slide a beautiful backhand pass to Steven Reinprecht, who was waiting on the doorstep to jam the puck in to the open side of the net. Thirteen minutes and thirty-five seconds in to his first NHL game and Radim Vrbata had his first NHL point.

The Rangers controlled the play for mostly the rest of the game, but Vrbata was able to find his way back on to the score sheet with 51 seconds remaining in the game and the Avalanche on a power play, down by a score of 5-2. Vrbata passed the puck to Reinprecht, who found defenseman Pascal Trepanier breaking in from the point. Trepanier’s shot was definitely going wide, but it bounced off the skate of Rangers’ defenseman Bryan Berard and into the net. Vrbata was credited with his second assist of the night. Although the Avalanche were defeated by a score of 5-3, they were very pleased with the play of the young Czech right winger. They needed offense, and his heads-up plays led to two Colorado goals. Vrbata was very much involved in the game, and there wasn’t any long period of time that I can remember without hearing his name being said by the announcers. After watching the game, one thing was clear: This kid is definitely going to be an offensive threat in this league. He has very soft hands and good stickhandling skills and he is blessed with a great deal of speed and excellent vision, which is rare for a 20 year old. He finished the night with 2 assists, 2 shots and an even +/- rating.

The very next night, the Avalanche were on the Island to face New York Islanders, who have cooled down some after a hot start to the season. The Avalanche found themselves trailing 2-0 early in the 2nd period when they finally got on the board. Young defenseman Martin Skoula was able beat Islanders’ goaltender Chris Osgood to score his 3rd of the season, and Vrbata received the secondary assist on the play. So far, 1 NHL game and 1/3 of another, and the former QMJHL scoring sensation had 3 assists. Not bad at all. However, Vrbata wasn’t done just yet.

Down 4-1 early in the 3rd period, the Avalanche were able to cut the Islanders lead to 2 when Joe Sakic found the back of the net on a spin-o-rama type move. Radim Vrbata (there’s that name again!) had the puck along the boards, and played it back to Adam Foote at the point. Foote’s blast was stopped by Chris Osgood, but Sakic was there on the rebound. Vrbata now had his 2nd assist on the night, and his second straight two-point game. Was he done there? Of course not. Five minutes later, with the score still 4-2 in favor of the Islanders, Vrbata was able to score his first NHL goal on an excellent display of stickhandling you do not see often from many young players in today’s NHL. Radim picked up a loose puck along the boards, danced along the goal-line, stickhandled around an Islanders’ defenseman and slid a backhander along the ice past Chris Osgood. 2 games, 1 goal, 4 assists, 5 points. Not a bad way to start off your NHL career.

Vrbata didn’t register another point in the game, but if the NHL awarded three assists per goal, Vrbata would have had another one. With the score now 4-3 and the Avalanche with the momentum, Vrbata skated into the Islanders zone with the puck. His first shot was blocked, but he was able to get the puck back and took another attempt, but it went wide, however it went back to the point where Greg de Vries controlled it. He passed it over to Steve Reinprecht who found Joe Sakic along the boards. Sakic took the puck and headed for the net, sliding a backhander passed Osgood to tie the game at 4. Vrbata didn’t receive an assist, but he was very much involved in the play. The Islanders came back with a late goal by Alexei Yashin, and the score ended 5-4 in favor of New York. The 5 points in 2 games were nice for the rookie, but I’m sure he would trade those points for 2 victories instead any day of the week.

The Avalanche have to be extremely happy with what they have seen so far from Radim Vrbata. From being a 7th round pick in 1999 to leading the Hershey Bears in scoring to 5 points i
n 2 NHL games, Vrbata has improved every season and most likely will continue to do so. He will remain with the Avalanche for now, and if he continues to produce, expect him to remain with the team for most of the season. The 20 year old has a very bright future, and although it’s still early, it’s looking like Colorado has found yet another late round steal in draft, something they are consistently known for. If Vrbata continues to improve and gain confidence, there’s no doubt in my mind the kid can be at least a 30 goal, 70 point player. He has a long way to go, but I’m willing to bet my money on the youngster. The next test for Vrbata? Showing his talent to the Colorado faithful. He’ll get that opportunity in the next game for the Avalanche, Saturday night at home against the red-hot Edmonton Oilers.