October 20, 2008
The dissection of the Tampa Bay Lightning's early season misfortunate has become a sport of its own.
Rumors that Barry Melrose is out of touch, disorganized and losing his team are becoming gospel in NHL circles; fact or fiction, his well-manicured head has been placed on the chopping block by more than one media outlet. There are those who can't decide if the defense or the offense is more pathetic. And then there are the brave souls who peddle optimism about this team, partially blaming the European trip for the incompetence and feeling confident in the team's enthusiasm.
The pessimism is a little too excessive for this early in the season, and obviously comes from a place (for some critics) of disgust over the character or conduct of the Lightning's unorthodox new ownership. Which, of course, fails to consider that some people have things besides hockey on their plate in October; like, for example, scaring the living crap out of people with spooky viral marketing phone calls to promote a horror sequel.
But while any slump can be broken, there's one that should be of particular concern right now for the Bolts: High-profile free-agent winger Radim Vrbata's embarrassing pointless start to the season. We could be looking at the biggest UFA bust of the year.
Saturday, RW Radim Vrbata watched the Lightning's 1-0 shootout loss to Minnesota from the press box as a healthy scratch. In the first four games, Vrbata, who signed a three-year contract worth $9 million, has zero points and 10 shots on goal while averaging more than 13 minutes of ice time. Last season with Phoenix, Vrbata scored a career-high 27 goals.
"Vrbata hasn't been giving us what we hoped," Lightning coach Barry Melrose said. "Vrbata has played four exhibition games and four regular-season games now and he hasn't got a goal and hardly any scoring chances. So the message has to start going to the guys, you start giving us what we want or you are going to be out of the lineup, and that goes for everybody."
Vrbata was signed, in part, to be the goal-scoring threat for rookie Steven Stamkos. His inability to generate offense no doubt has contributed to Stamkos's slow start. Before he was removed from the lineup, Vrbata was dropped down to Chris Gratton's line.
That's a $3 million free-agent winger, swapping places with Adam Hall. Let that one roll around your mouth like a rotten olive for a while.
The only commendable thing about Vrbata's signing at the time was that Tampa Bay didn't break the bank for him. Otherwise, he was the epitome of a contract-year star with Phoenix. Out of all the Bolts' moves in the offseason, this one had the greatest potential to blow up in their faces.
Yes, we're including Melrose on that list.