Things heating up for former Senator Vermette, Coyotes

Things heating up for former Senator Vermette, Coyotes

For a guy whose hockey career began amid snowdrifts in Quebec City, the upcoming Phoenix-to-Los Angeles third-round National Hockey League playoff series is about as traditional as the warm-weather Phoenix-to-Nashville shuttle was in the second round.

You won’t find Antoine Vermette complaining, though.

Instead, he’s relishing the heat that has come along with his playoff success with the Coyotes, his first extended postseason run since going to the Stanley Cup final with the Ottawa Senators back in 2007.

“It’s hockey weather,” Vermette said, with a laugh, in a telephone interview on Tuesday, only a few hours after his Coyotes knocked off the Predators in five games to set up a Sunshine Series that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman might have dreamed up. “Every day, you don’t even look at the forecast. You just go outside and it’s sunny.”

Sunny is an apt description of his mood, too. Back in February, Vermette was spinning his wheels with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the worst team in hockey, wondering what was coming next for a team that was shopping star left-winger Rick Nash. As it turned out, the Blue Jackets kept Nash and traded Vermette to Phoenix, unloading the two years and $7.5 million U.S. remaining on his contract.

Being dealt for a second time — in February 2009 the Senators sent the affable Vermette to Columbus in exchange for accident- and injury-prone goaltender Pascal Leclaire and a second-round pick the Senators used to select goaltender Robin Lehner — the shock wasn’t as bad. Vermette was also recharged about once again being involved in meaningful late-season games.

“We were battling for top spot in the division, for a playoff spot, and being in that race is so exciting,” he says. “I realized how much I missed it from when I was (in Ottawa). Before going to Columbus, I had only missed the playoffs two times in my entire life.”

He didn’t set Phoenix on fire right away, scoring three goals and seven assists in 22 regular-season games. In the playoffs, though, he has become invaluable. He’s the Coyotes’ leading scorer, with five goals and four assists in 11 games. He has also been a standout in the faceoff circle, winning 58.4 per cent of his draws.

The Coyotes have needed a defensive commitment, of course, and Vermette’s numbers wouldn’t matter if not for the unexpected standout play of goaltender Mike Smith.

Smith has become a leading candidate to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP due to his 1.77 goals-against average and .948 save percentage. Whether true or not, the unsubstantiated stories that Smith hasn’t cut his hair in a year are fast turning into legend, a la Samson.

Smith and Vermette are part of a team made of generally unheralded players, players who have typically been considered second-tier talent. Then there was the previous knock against Phoenix, a team that had always disappeared early in the postseason, if it made the playoffs at all.

“It’s different (from Ottawa), just from the fact that this is an organization that had never got past the first round and including (the old Winnipeg Jets), never past the second round,” Vermette says. “When I was in Ottawa, every year we were in the playoffs and even though Phoenix was a pretty consistent team (during the regular seasons), in Ottawa, it always had a bigger spotlight, higher expectations. I’m thrilled to be a part of all those firsts here.”

As the playoffs continue, the small details on the ice have become big details, and players are being noticed for making all the smart defensive plays along the way. Crowds have even shown up at the airport when the Coyotes have returned from road victories over Nashville and Chicago, in the first round.

While the hockey world is naturally intrigued about the short- and long-term viability of the franchise in Phoenix — the skepticism stemming from Monday’s announcement that Greg Jamison could be the head of a new ownership group is based on a history of having seen it all before — Vermette insists he has blinders on to most of the financial talk going on around him. He’s focused on preparing for the next game.

“Right when I got traded, there was a lot more talk about it at that time,” Vermette says of the speculation Phoenix could be moved to his home town of Quebec City. “People were excited back home, talking about maybe a new arena, but as we got closer to the playoffs, it cooled down. Even with the announcement (Monday), you’re so much into the game, you’re not thinking about it at all.”

Even though the Coyotes are part of the NHL’s final four for the first time, Vermette is one of the few who have the experience of going all the way to the final.

His playoff performance also allows for another look back at the trade that brought Leclaire and Lehner to Ottawa. Three weeks ago, Leclaire had a third surgery to repair damage in his hip. If it doesn’t work this time, he’ll have no choice but to retire. The talented Lehner remains a work in progress due to his inconsistency and is currently sitting No. 3 on the Senators’ goaltending depth chart behind Craig Anderson and Ben Bishop.

Vermette, meanwhile, is anxious for the playoff heat to pick up even more.

“We’re only halfway done,” he says.

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