BOSTON — General manager Brian Lawton said he was not planning to put Radim Vrbata on waivers. But when the Lightning right wing on Sunday asked to return to his native Czech Republic for personal reasons, Lawton said he agreed.
"This is a personal matter," Lawton said Monday. "I didn't ask him to come in. Nothing like that happened."
"That's right," said Vrbata's agent Rich Evans, who denied the request had to do with his client's on-ice struggles. "This is a legitimate personal issue."
The exact nature was unclear, but Vrbata's wife, Petra, is about five months pregnant with their first child. If Vrbata clears at noon today, he likely will be assigned to his hometown team of Mlada Boleslav, Evans said.
Tampa Bay, clearing space for the anticipated return of injured C Jeff Halpern and to keep some of the youth recently promoted from AHL Norfolk, also put C Chris Gratton on waivers.
Gratton, 33, who is making $1.25-million but has been stuck on the fourth line and missed the past nine games with a lower-body injury, likely will be assigned to Norfolk if he clears.
His guaranteed salary would still be paid but would come off Tampa Bay's cap number.
"We like Chris and like what he's done," said Lawton, adding Gratton is cleared to play. "Mostly we're trying to get some youth and energy into the lineup."
Vrbata's situation was more complicated.
Signed in July to a three-year, $9-million contract, the 27-year-old has three goals and six points in 18 games. Vrbata's deal does not have a European assignment clause, but as he asked for the assignment, Tampa Bay will be relieved of the salary obligation and cap hit of $3-million.
Vrbata will be assigned back to the Lightning after the season for the final two years of his deal.
"He intends to fulfill his obligation," Evans said.
Given his lack of offense and that coach Rick Tocchet has been critical of Vrbata's puck-hunting skills, will he fit in?
"We'll revisit it over the summer," Lawton said.
Until then, Evans said neither he nor Vrbata are negative about the Tampa Bay organization.
"We really appreciate the efforts of Brian Lawton and (owner) Len Barrie," Evans said. "We appreciate their willingness to recognize this family issue."
HALPERN UPDATE: Halpern (knee) said last week that he might play Dec. 18 against the Avalanche or Dec. 20 against the Thrashers. On Monday, he said Dec. 23 against the Penguins also could be an option.
But first Halpern, who in May had reconstructive surgery, will play at least one game with Norfolk.
"I don't mind going down," he said. "I just want to make sure I'm capable of playing here at a high level. You have to play the game and react and not think. 'What's going on?' The more I play, the more comfortable I'm going to be."
ODDS AND ENDS: Tocchet said LW Ryan Malone (upper body) could play Wednesday at Buffalo. … LW David Koci resumed skating with a hole cut in his glove to accommodate the cast on his broken right hand. … LWs Matt Pettinger (knee) and Gary Roberts (groin) were out.