RALEIGH — It feels now as if Radim Vrbata was around here a lot longer than he actually was, at least in terms of games he actually played for the Carolina Hurricanes.
From the hype surrounding his acquisition at the trade deadline in 2003 to the year lost to the lockout, to his departure midway through the Stanley Cup season, Vrbata's tenure with the Hurricanes spanned 32 months, but he played only one full season here.
"It seems a lot longer than it actually was. It seems like a long time ago," Vrbata said Wednesday. "It was my first trade, so everything was new and totally different from what I knew in Colorado. It's an experience you take with you and use it later in your career."
Ray Whitney's return to the RBC Center captured most of the fan interest when the Phoenix Coyotes visited Wednesday night - and Whitney delivered, with the game's opening goal and the key assist on the game-winner in a 4-3 win - but Vrbata's appearance recalled memories of a different era in the team's history.
When he arrived in a deadline deal for the popular Bates Battaglia, the 21-year-old Vrbata was heralded as a natural goal-scorer. Now the 30-year-old Vrbata is at a point in his career where he's living up to those expectations.
Bigger and stronger than he was with the Hurricanes, Vrbata is thriving. After scoring 24 and 19 goals in the previous two seasons, he has 16 in only 34 games for the Coyotes this year. He's second on the team in shots and third among forwards in ice time.
There's something about Phoenix that fits Vrbata's game. After he was squeezed out of the Carolina lineup in the fall of 2005 - he was a healthy scratch in 21 of the Hurricanes' first 37 games - he spent a year and a half with the Chicago Blackhawks before he landed in Phoenix.
Vrbata scored a career-high 27 goals for the Coyotes in 2007-08, then turned around and signed a big-money free-agent deal with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was one of many players caught up in that disaster, when dysfunctional ownership and incompetent management sent the Lightning into a two-season spin.
Vrbata lasted only three months in Tampa before his on-ice struggles and off-ice family health issues conspired to send him back to his native Czech Republic for the rest of the season. Traded back to Phoenix the next summer, he picked up where he left off with the Coyotes.
"Since that first year, when I got traded there, it just seems like a good fit for me," Vrbata said. "That first year under Wayne (Gretzky), everything clicked. We had a young team and I had the opportunity to play a lot. For the first time, I played my game. Nobody was changing my style."
It's exactly what the Hurricanes saw in Vrbata almost a decade ago. Vrbata still savors his memories of playing with Ron Francis and the late Josef Vasicek. He remembers the family atmosphere here. And he credits his experience with the Hurricanes for some of the success he's having now. "I take it as learning," Vrbata said. "Even though you're a healthy scratch or something, you have to look at what you can improve in your game or learn from your mistakes or stuff you don't do well. That's the key."
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