Red Wings Have Lineup Choices to Make With Vrana Returning

Like the results of an important test or a response from a prospective employer, this is the news hockey fans across “Hockeytown” have been waiting for:

Forward Jakub Vrana has missed all of the 2021-22 season while recovering from shoulder surgery in the Fall. While he recently joined the Detroit Red Wings at practice wearing a blue non-contact jersey, he has since been cleared to start taking contact. While his return is not imminent, things can change quite quickly in the NHL, and it may only be a matter of days before we learn that the soon-to-be 26-year-old winger is getting ready to make his season debut.

Related: Red Wings’ Vrana Poised to Make an Impact Upon Return

That is an exciting thought to ponder, especially when also considering what Vrana was able to do in his 11 games with Detroit last season. He had eight goals and 11 points while playing for a team that finished the season with an average of 2.27 goals-for per game (GF/G). He was absolutely electric after joining the team following the trade deadline, and considering that this season’s Red Wings team averages 2.88 GF/G, he should have the opportunity to create even more offense for the Red Wings upon his return.

However, as is the case with any player that returns from injury, the team will need to find a spot in the lineup for him to enter. It’s not as simple as demote a fourth-liner and call it good; the Red Wings have three lines that have identity and can fulfill their roles on a given night. Inserting Vrana into the lineup may cause a ripple effect throughout the lineup that dramatically changes the way the team looks. With the team playing pretty well as of late, head coach Jeff Blashill is now tasked with figuring out the best way to implement Vrana and his offense into the lineup without disrupting the lines that are working for Detroit.

There is no simple solution, but here are a few ideas.

Top Line With Larkin & Raymond

When Dylan Larkin went down with a neck injury last season, it removed the most talented center Vrana could play with in Detroit. Obviously it didn’t hold back his production, but it’s fair to wonder how Larkin’s production would have looked down the stretch with a player like Vrana riding shotgun. This season, Larkin has had another talented winger to play with – one that made the roster due in part to Vrana’s absence: Lucas Raymond.

Dylan Larkin Detroit Red Wings
Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings (Photo by Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

Larkin leads the Red Wings this season with 52 points in 46 games. His 26 goals is already the second-highest total of his career, he was the Red Wings’ representative at the All-Star Game, and overall he’s playing like the first line center that Detroit needs him to be if they’re going to continue to climb up the standings in the Eastern Conference. Good wingers play their best alongside good centers, and Larkin is as good as it gets as far as the Red Wings’ roster is concerned.

As for Raymond, the rookie sensation leads all rookies this season with 39 points in 51 games. While his scoring pace has dropped off over the last couple of months, he still generates chances, and has four points in his last five games. He has quickly become a target for opposing defenses to key-in on, and he’s a big reason for why the Red Wings’ scoring numbers are up this season.

The current top line consists of Larkin, Raymond, and Filip Zadina – Vrana’s countryman whose low scoring output this season has sparked all sorts of debate about whether or not he has a future with the Red Wings. According to Natural Stat Trick, this trio has a Corsi-For percentage (CF%) of 53.2 in 53 even-strength minutes together. Their overall strong play together has helped elevate the play of Zadina, who has been a lot more noticeable since joining Larkin and Raymond.

A line of Vrana with Larkin and Raymond would be a nightmare for opposing defenses to contain. All three of them have the ability to score, Larkin and Raymond are both adept playmakers who can find Vrana for a scoring chance, and there’s a good amount of speed between the three of them. This trio would be about as close to a pure top line as the Red Wings can ice this season. However, removing Zadina from the top line could potentially undo all of the progress that he has shown over the past few weeks. While Zadina has looked good, at times, on the third line, there is zero doubt that he is not as likely to produce lower in the lineup, and one of the benefits of adding Vrana to the lineup should be that the Red Wings should get a trickle-down effect to their offense.

Essentially, the decision to play Vrana on the top line comes down to how the coaching staff wants to handle Zadina. If they’re willing to move the 22-year-old winger down the lineup, Vrana should be be a lethal weapon on the top line.

Third Line With Rasmussen, Erne and/or Zadina

At this point in the season, Michael Rasmussen has spent the majority of the season locked in as the Red Wings’ third line center. While there remains a chance that Joe Veleno could overtake him in that role, chances are that “Ras” is in that spot to stay this season. As it stands right now, he centers a checking line between Vladislav Namestnikov and Adam Erne. This is the Red Wings’ “energy line” that forechecks and is mostly out there to grind down the opponent, providing energy for Detroit in the process.

Prior to Zadina being elevated to the first line, Namestnikov spent some time on the top line with Larkin and Raymond. While Namestnikov did not fare as well as Zadina has (51.2 CF%), they still controlled the play, presenting Blashill with another viable option on the top line should he opt to move Zadina down.

Speaking of Zadina, he and Vrana formed some serious chemistry in their limited time together last season. Coined by fans as the “Czechmates”, they outscored their opponents 4-2 in 56 minutes of even-strength time together. Many figured they would be linemates again entering this season, and a good number of people point to Vrana’s absence as part of the reason for Zadina’s struggles this season. Pairing Vrana with Zadina seems like a logical step, and putting Rasmussen between them gives the pair a rugged forward that can do the dirty work for them while they set out to fill their opponent’s nets with pucks.

Filip Zadina Detroit Red Wings
Filip Zadina, Detroit Red Wings (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If Blashill wants to keep Zadina up with Larkin and Raymond, Vrana can ease his way back into the lineup on the third line and represent a secondary scoring threat. Namestnikov or Erne could play on the other wing, though Namestnikov’s status as a trade deadline target could factor into this decision. This is where Vrana’s return may present the Red Wings with a bit of a tricky situation in terms of fitting all their best players into the lineup and in the proper spots.

Vrana’s Return May Force a Trade

The good news is that with Vrana imminent return, the Red Wings now have a solid amount of depth to their roster – and that’s without accounting for Mitchell Stephens who remains injured, and prospect Jonatan Berggren who is developing down in the American Hockey League. Blashill and his coaching staff should have the opportunity to have not one, not two, but THREE scoring lines depending on how the lines take shape.

Related: Red Wings’ Success Won’t Change Yzerman’s Plan

However, in order to create a roster spot for Vrana while also maintaining spots for fourth-liners like Givani Smith and Joe Veleno, the Red Wings and general manager Steve Yzerman may need to expedite the process of trading a forward. The likeliest candidate here is Namestnikov, as was previously mentioned, as he should be able to fetch a decent draft pick from a contender looking to add to their bottom six. While Namestnikov is the likeliest, don’t count out the chance that Yzerman surprises us all and moves out somebody else that currently sits in the top nine.

There are more options for Vrana than the two mentioned here. While Blashill will want to maintain most of what has worked for the Red Wings this season, he can get really creative with the lineup if he chooses. Vrana is the type of player that can make a huge difference for his team if utilized correctly. That’s the challenge facing the coaching staff, and that’s going to be the thing sparking the most debate among fans between now and when Vrana finally returns to the Red Wings’ lineup.

Where in the lineup would you place Vrana? Sound off in the comments section down below!

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