Much of the hockey community was taken back last August when New York Rangers general manager Glen Sather announced that the club had signed Czech veteran Vaclav “Vinny” Prospal.
At the time, Prospal himself had been taken back, not to mention embarrassed, when his then-current club, the Tampa Bay Lightning, had bought out the final three years of his four-year, $14 million contract.
Some were surprised that Prospal would sign with the Rangers, since his relationship with Blueshirts head coach John Tortorella was tenuous at best when the latter coached the former as a member of the Lightning.
Yet, it was a series of conversations with the fiery bench boss that convinced Prospal, notorious for a consistently fluctuating career trend of one good season followed by one bad season followed by one good season, and so forth, to come to Broadway on the cheap.
At the bargain basement price of $1.1 million, the 35-year-old seemed like quite a value, especially since the aforementioned career trend seemed to prognosticate a successful season for the tanned Abercrombie & Fitch devotee .
The Prospal bell curve did, in fact, remain the status quo. Following a somewhat disappointing 19-goal, 45-point season with Tampa Bay in 2008-09, Prospal returned to more familiar territory in 2009-10 with the Rangers, finishing the campaign with 20 goals and 58 points.
Prospal earned a reputation in Tampa for being a strong complementary offensive player who worked well with superior talent like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis. After spending a season playing mostly with Rangers’ star Marian Gaborik, that reputation has been strengthened.
Easily the Rangers second-biggest offensive threat this season, Prospal turned out to be an effective running mate for Gaborik, using his solid wrist shot, above average vision and tenacity along the boards to augment the speed and quick release of the Slovakian sniper.
When their magic began to dissolve later in the season, however, Prospal began to see icetime with other linemates in Tortorella’s never-ending game of musical chairs. Less icetime with Gaborik meant declining numbers for Prospal, as the veteran of 949 NHL regular season contests recorded just three goals and three assists in the club’s final 14 games.
That, unfortunately, is the drawback with a player like Prospal. While he is talented enough to make an impact when playing with major offensive weapons like Gaborik, he’s not enough of a difference maker when skating with lesser talents (like practically every other forward the Rangers dressed this season).
Still, at his discounted salary Prospal proved to be a very wise investment. In addition to his offense, he emerged early on as an enthusiastic team leader and began to shed previously-attributed labels like “lazy” and “selfish” in lieu of more flattering terms like “veteran role model.”
All in all, Prospal was certainly something of a bright spot for the Rangers this season. Consequently, the forward’s strong showing may do wonders for the rest of his career.
A free agent once more this summer, Prospal may be looking to sign the penultimate, or perhaps even final, contract of his lengthy and successful NHL career.
His performance this season, combined with the positive change seen in his attitude, will surely lead to an increase in pay for next season. Whether or not that payday will come from the Blueshirts or another club remains to be seen, though it’s sure to be a hotly-debated issue over the next few months.
Vaclav Prospal Grade: B+