(Editors note: The following was written by Jes Gölbez, previously of Hockey Rants and posted here with his permission)
Radim Vrbata's tenure with the Tampa Bay Lightning, less than half a season into his 3-year, $9 million contract, has come to a quiet end as the slick Czech winger is going back home to play in the Czech Republic for the remainder of the season.
That was quick!
Coming off of a career high 56-point season, Vrbata was in that class of second-tier free agents that would be a good pick up for most teams.
The problem? The Tampa Bay Lightning wasn't one of them, and it was never a good fit from the start.
Context is everything, and transactions cannot simply be looked through with tunnel vision. Signing Martin Brodeur to a 6-year contract for your club? Smart! Signing Martin Brodeur to a 6-year contract when you already have Roberto Luongo signed to a 4-year deal? Pretty flippin' stupid.
Ever since Oren Koules and his band of merry men took over the Lightning, they have shown a complete lack of direction in their signings, trades, and other personnel moves. The hiring/firing of Barry Melrose is an obvious example, but the bevy of free agent contracts was the real story.
While Vrbata would be a good pickup for a team like the Florida Panthers, or the Minnesota Wild (teams that lack offense up front), it never made sense for the Lightning to sign Vrbata when they already had Lecavalier, Prospal, St. Louis, Recchi, Malone, Stamkos on the roster already. Already, you can see the top two lines are basically filled. Instead of trying to have a well-balanced roster, the Lightning figured they could just load up on as many offensive-minded forwards as they could get their paws on and hope that it magically worked. Nevermind that the defensive corp was power, the Lightning have few defensively-capable forwards, and big question marks in goal (luckily, goaltending hasn't been an issue ... yet), paying $3mil/season for a 3rd line winger was TOP PRIORITY!
Really, how the hell do you expect a club to win when Mark Recchi is getting serious time on the PK?
As we know, Radim Vrbata is the type of offensive-minded that needs a good amount of quality ice time to be productive. Vrbata is good on the Power Play, and puts up decent numbers, but his defensive play leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put, you just don't put Vrbata on the 3rd line and get a good return on your investment.
While you might look at Vrbata's raw numbers (3 goals and 3 assists in 18 games) and shake your head, it's no surprise that his production tanked when his ice time dropped from 18:12 a game with the Phoenix Coyotes to just 14:13 a game with the Bolts. Add to this the fact that Vrbata's current line mates are far from the talent he played with while with the desert dogs and WHAT THE HELL DID YOU EXPECT?
While I will not like Vrbata go blameless for his lack of production and inability to fight for more ice time, I will certainly say that the Lightning deserve a smack for making such a poorly-thought out signing in the first place. The Lightning did not need a player like Vrbata, nor did they have the right spot for him. You wouldn't hire a brain surgeon to perform a triple bypass, would you?
I liken this signing to that of Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne with the Avalanche back in 2003-04
"We got Kariya AND Selanne! OMFG WTH!!"
Normally, signing these two legends would been a great move ... unless you stick them on the 3rd line. Kariya put up a career-worst 36 points in 51 games while Selanne had just 32 points in 78 games (and looked completely Finnished ... ba-doom-ching!) and were playing lesser roles than they were accustomed to and 'built' for.
All too often, fans and certain NHL GM's don't look at context when formulate possible signings and trades. It would be great to have a team of All-Star calibre forwards who can put the puck in the net, but who's going to kill penalties? Who's going to keep the opposing stars in check? One only need to look at the Red Wings to see that great teams need a good balance of players, not just offensive-minded ones.
Vrbata is only 27 years of age, so their ought to be a spot for him in the NHL next season, should he wish to return. It's not like Vrbata isn't an NHL quality player capable of putting up 50-ish points on the right club. I just hope that his NHL career doesn't end with such a fizzle.