There are a lot of things to like about the Detroit Red Wings as a whole. General manager Steve Yzerman has done an excellent job of creating a bright future for the franchise while acquiring slightly older players who may not be as valued on other teams. One of the players that they acquired was the young Washington Capitals forward, Jakub Vrana. They traded the third big piece of the top line, Anthony Mantha, in exchange for him, Richard Panik, and two draft picks. He performed valiantly, and was the reason a lot of new people tuned into games. However, due to injuries to other teammates and possible linemates, we didn’t get to see everything at its best. It’s a new season and a new beginning, which means a fully healthy lineup. It wouldn’t shock me at all if the first line is one of the best in the league.
Vrana Showed What He Can Do
Vrana did not disappoint after coming to the Red Wings. He scored at a point per game, but his eight goals in 11 games are the most telling. He was on an absolute heater. It would be unsurprising if he felt that he was being undervalued by his former team and needed to prove something to everyone, including himself.
Vrana’s game is really unique. The 25-year-old winger brings tons of speed and tenacity, but he mixes it well with supreme skill and goal-scoring ability. He’s not particularly large, standing at a solid 6-foot and weighing 196 pounds, but he does manage to use his body effectively to maneuver around defenders. In 284 games with the Capitals, he posted a total of 157 points and 76 goals. To go along with the box score numbers, his analytics were great as well. From 2017-20, he had the fourth-highest goals above replacement (GAR) and the second-best expected goals above replacement (xGAR) only behind Alex Ovechkin per Evolving-Hockey.
He provides many things both on and off the scoresheet, and the Red Wings got a player that they need to help with scoring. Yzerman clearly has a vision to bring in fast and skilled forwards to pair with strong puck-moving defensemen that aren’t afraid to play the body. He’s fulfilling that vision with the Vrana acquisition. He wasn’t being used right, and taking advantage of that is exactly what needs to happen for a rebuilding team very gradually returning to playoff contention.
Dylan Larkin Is a Steady Presence
It feels like Dylan Larkin made his first appearance on a massive stage at the 2016 All-Star game in Nashville only yesterday. After demolishing everyone in the fastest skater competition and breaking the NHL record, he put the rebuilding Red Wings back on the map. Now, almost five seasons later, he’s the newest captain in a long line of storied players with tons of accolades and titles.
There is a lot to love about Larkin’s game outside of his speed. He’s an excellent play reader, and he’s clearly a step or two ahead of the opposition when he’s on the ice. His anticipation is on another level, and sometimes the plays he makes are otherworldly. He’s also ridiculously crafty with his stick and can find open areas and distribute the puck with ease. By watching some of his highlights, you honestly wouldn’t think that speed is one of his best assets. He clearly uses it in reserve and instead uses his great hockey mind to his advantage.
His mind in tight areas and ability to feed the puck through open space will be key to opening up play. Larkin can use his speed with Vrana’s to create rush opportunities and up the team’s transition game. Every great line has a center that can read the game well, and considering his connection with the next player I’m going to be talking about, there is already a firm baseline. He had a rather below average 2020-21 season, finishing with 23 points in 44 games, but it’s clearly an outlier judging by his past seasons. There is more in the tank.
Tyler Bertuzzi Is a Reliable Pest
Tyler Bertuzzi had a rough 2020-21 in that he didn’t even hit the ice for more than 10 games. However, in the games that he did play, he was excellent. He had seven points, including five goals, and was sixth on the team in expected goals for percentage (xGF%) even though it was below 50 percent and in a small sample size.
Bertuzzi is known for being a bit of a nuisance on the ice. He enjoys going to the front of the net and harassing the goaltender and opposing defenders. He’s not the fastest skater, and there isn’t truly an exceptional part of his game. However, he’s not a liability either, which is perfect for a top line. There always needs to be someone you can rely on to bring the heat, and he’s that guy. His consistent pestering of the opposition paired with his skill and ability to hunt down loose pucks in front of the net and the corners is the perfect combination. It’s hard to find players like him outside of a player like Matthew Tkachuk of the Calgary Flames.
Like I mentioned in the last section, he already has established chemistry with Larkin after being on a line with him and Mantha. The number of goals they’ve connected on over the last few seasons is truly remarkable. You rarely find two players who have playstyles that blend perfectly. Having those two already in Detroit and taking the pressure off of Vrana to perform is something that cannot go overstated. When all else fails, send Bertuzzi to the net, and fire pucks through. Anything can happen.
A Perfect Match
All three of these players bring different elements to a line. One is a gritty player that isn’t afraid to go to the front of the net and throw people off their game. The other two bring speed and offensive prowess. Vrana, in particular, is an excellent two-way presence with incredible speed and the ability to crush slower defenders on the rush. You can look at any excellent top line in the NHL and find all of these elements.
The Colorado Avalanche, for example, has Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon, and Gabriel Landeskog. Landeskog is a great two-way presence with some grit and edge. Both Rantanen and MacKinnon are great offensively and can use their speed to take advantage of time and space. Of course, the players I’ve talked about aren’t on the same level in terms of talent, but the different facets of the game are identical.
A lot of the problems for the two existing Red Wings players last season had to do with injuries. Bertuzzi barely played, and Larkin’s season-ending injury didn’t help during an already mediocre year. Adding a new and slightly younger presence that helps speed and two-way skills will always boost a line’s capabilities. The original line with Mantha was great, so I think this one with Vrana will be even better.
Jeff is a consistent source for Red Wings and Wild content at The Hockey Writers. He was formerly a member of the Predators writing team, and he enjoys watching all sorts of hockey, from juniors to the pros. Jeff enjoys playing for his high school and local teams in Nashville as well. He’s a big proponent of hockey analytics, and you’ll often see him using lots of statistics and data to back up his main talking points. You can find his work here or check out his contributions on his Substack, Last Word on Hockey, On the Forecheck, and Puck Empire. Lastly, you can listen to him on the Youth Movement Podcast presented by On the Forecheck or the Triple Shift Podcast. For any inquiries about interviews or questions about statistics, analytics, or just general hockey opinions, you can message his Twitter, @jjmid04.