There has been a lot to behold so far this season for the Detroit Red Wings. Whether it’s skillful goals or fantastic rookies playing like five-year veterans, there’s been a lot worth smiling about in Hockeytown this season. However, just a few days ago, the Red Wings and their fans both were treated to some positive developments in regards to a player that hasn’t seen the ice at all this season.
Jakub Vrana, who signed a three-year deal with the Red Wings during the offseason after coming over from the Washington Capitals in the Anthony Mantha trade, has missed all of this season due to a shoulder ailment that ultimately required surgery. Projections at the time placed his return at around the Olympic break (early to mid February). While the NHL is no longer sending their players to Beijing for the 2022 Olympics, Vrana’s recovery timeline still looks to be going according to plan. Seeing him out on the Red Wings’ practice rink – even in a non-contact jersey – is enough to generate excitement as fans await the 25-year-old winger’s return to the lineup.
When he does return, Vrana should add an offensive jolt to a team that could use a little extra firepower.
Jeff Blashill Updates Vrana’s Status
When asked about Vrana skating in a non-contact jersey, Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill offered an assessment of Vrana’s recovery progress.
“He’s making progress, and the next step was to come out and be a part of the team and the team skate, both him and (defenseman Troy Stecher). I think there’s a mental side to that that’s extremely important for those guys. It’s lonely when you’re just doing stuff on your own….they’ve both been doing it for a long time, so for them to both join practice, I thought that was a big boost for them. (It) gives them energy in their rehab.”
Blashill also added that Vrana won’t be in a contact jersey before the break – the stretch from Feb. 3 to Feb. 8 where Detroit does not play a single game. “He’ll be in non-contact for a while,” Blashill said, before also adding that Vrana will have a doctor’s appointment in mid-February to assess his progress and determine where the winger will go next in terms of his recovery.
To this point, this all falls in line with the earliest projections of when Vrana would return. If he is permitted to return to action after his check-up, he should be inserted into the Red Wings’ lineup with about two months left on the season. With the Red Wings’ holding a 19-20-6 record this season, he won’t be joining a team looking to add jet fuel to their playoff push. Despite that fact, he could and should still have a massive impact on the Red Wings as they close in on the trade deadline and the end of the season.
Vrana’s Projected Impact
Perhaps the biggest question surrounding Vrana, besides his return date, is where he will slot in on the Red Wings’ roster. Despite his absence all season, Detroit has iced a competitive roster from the onset of the season, due in part to the play of their two Calder Trophy-caliber rookies, strong goaltending from Alex Nedeljkovic, and bounce back seasons from Dylan Larkin and Tyler Bertuzzi. With how the lineup has looked for most of the season, you might be forgiven if you had completely forgotten that the team has been missing a top six winger this whole time.
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Perhaps the most obvious place where Vrana’s absence has been felt is on the power play. To this point, the Red Wings only have a 16.4 percent success rate on the power play, which ranks 27th in the NHL. The top unit, which has had the most success, usually consists of Larkin, Bertuzzi, Robby Fabbri, Lucas Raymond and Moritz Seider. The Red Wings’ lack of offensive depth is put on display when their second unit takes the ice, which usually consists of Nick Leddy, Filip Hronek, Filip Zadina, and a rotating cast that includes Pius Suter, Adam Erne, Sam Gagner and Michael Rasmussen. Adding Vrana to the second unit would immediately add credibility to the second unit as nobody else that is usually available for that unit possesses the kind of pure offensive skill that Vrana has.
In 11 games with the Red Wings last season, Vrana scored eight goals, including three game-winners. While that’s an unsustainable scoring rate, there’s a reason why some of us thought that he was set to become the Red Wings’ go-to scorer this season. With Detroit averaging 2.73 goals-for this season (24th in the NHL), their scoring numbers have improved over last season’s mark (2.27), but it’s fair to wonder how many more goals the team would have if Vrana had been available from the start of the season, and how many extra wins those goals would have led to.
On top of Vrana’s impact on the team as a whole, there are also individuals that could benefit from his return. One of the top rebuttals to the idea of trading winger Zadina is “let’s wait to see how he plays with Vrana when he returns.” To that point, that duo outscored their opponents 4-2 through 56 minutes together at even strength last season (per Natural Stat Trick), presenting some validity to that argument. With both wingers hailing from Czechia, the “Czech-mates” could provide the Red Wings with another dynamic duo, similar to what we’ve seen this season with Larkin and Raymond. If Vrana can bring out the best in Zadina, that will solve a lot of Detroit’s secondary scoring issues.
In fact, igniting the rest of Detroit’s offense would not only help a player like Zadina, but it should also help out Raymond as well. While Larkin and Bertuzzi are one and two atop the Red Wings’ scoring leaders list, Raymond isn’t far behind due to his blistering start to this season. Through his last 10 games, he has a single goal and five assists, showing that even when he isn’t finding the back of net with regularity, he is still able to contribute on offense – a very promising sign for the 19-year-old winger. Adding a player like Vrana to the lineup would give opposing defenses another high-octane forward to account for, and that could in turn create more space for Raymond to play in. Heck, the two of them could very well end up playing together on Detroit’s top line (how much fun would that be!?)
In short, adding Vrana back into the lineup should have a sort of “trickle down” effect on the offense as other players should receive more favorable matchups, and both power play units should then have a bona fide scorer available.
Vrana, Red Wings Await the Doctor’s Word
As Blashill notes, “we’ll see, we could get to mid-February and it may be another month…we’re going to have to wait and see.”
This is the unpredictable nature of injuries and recovery time. All it takes is one minor setback and then suddenly the timeline gets pushed back a full month. With the current mid-to-late February timeline, it’s fair to assume that if the timeline gets pushed back too much further, the Red Wings may seriously consider shutting Vrana down for the season and allow him the full spring and summer to return to full health. While this would undoubtedly be a gut-punch to those of us who want to see how he fits in with this season’s team, the ultimate priority here has to be ensuring that he is back to full health and that he won’t face any setbacks that are within the team’s control.
But when Vrana does return, be it in February or the beginning of the 2022-23 season, the Red Wings’ offense is going to take on a different complexion. He is essentially the ace hidden up the Red Wings’ sleeves. All we can do right now is wait to find out if Detroit will get reveal that ace sooner rather than later.
I am a Western Michigan University alum whose passion for hockey knows no limits. Dr. Pepper enthusiast. Catch me and my fellow Red Wings writers’ YouTube show “The Hockey Writers Grind Line” which drops every Saturday.