Maybe it was the shootout goal, when Jakub Vrana skated across the net and, just as he reached the far post, extended his right hand back and slipped the puck past Tampa Bay’s Curtis McElhinney to beat the Lightning and give the Detroit Red Wings one of its more unlikely wins of the season.
Or maybe it was Vrana’s puck-seizing, blast down the ice against the Carolina Hurricanes, when he juked a defender, exploded into a crease, and opened his right shoulder to the goalie before backhanding the puck into the upper right corner.
Or maybe it’s the sizzle with which the young Czech skates. The possibility, too. For you never know what he’s going to do.
It has been a while since anyone on the Wings has brought this kind of stand-in-your seat anticipation. And while it’s too soon to say whether general manager Steve Yzerman won the trade when he acquired Vrana for Mantha a little more than three weeks ago, the early return is unquestionable:
Vrana can play.
He’s also young at 25, and shouldn’t be too expensive to keep beyond this season – he is a restricted free agent. And if Yzerman signs him this offseason and Vrana keeps producing at even close to what he’s showing, well, these are the kind of moves that lead somewhere.
That Vrana is here says a couple things about Yzerman’s expectation and vision in Year 2 of his rebuild: One, if a player doesn’t bring it, he should start looking on Zillow. And, two, Yzerman will abide a talented player who hasn’t learned to play as long as he tries to play.
Mantha got lost because of inconsistent effort; Vrana got lost because he wasn’t sure how to play without the puck.
Yzerman is banking on the culture he is trying to build. For now, coach Jeff Blashill remains a part of it, and it’s not hard to see why.
These Wings, despite the loss of most of their best offensive players, remain competitive and engaged. (The recent win over Tampa is exhibit A). They’ve also gotten better over the course of the season.
A season, by the way, that began with the loss of five key players to COVID-19 protocol, including Robbie Fabbri and Filip Zadina. COVID and injuries ruined whatever chance Blashill had to develop continuity this season.
Still, here are the Wings, two games from season’s end – they finish with consecutive games in Columbus this weekend – pushing themselves all over the ice as if there were something for which to play.
Actually, there is.
Don’t forget this.
Whether contracts or momentum or pride or love of the game, this group is fighting. Again, Blashill deserves some credit for this.
It wouldn’t be a stretch for Yzerman to extend Blashill’s contract another season or two. It’s not like the Wings are going to compete for the Cup anytime soon anyway. And as long as the team keeps improving, and as long as the young players keep developing, why not?
Familiarity can be helpful during a rebuild. So can a fresh voice in the locker room. Which is why it wouldn’t be stunning if Blashill is gone, either.
No matter Yzerman’s choice, he obviously thinks a lot of his coach. He wouldn’t have kept him around the past two seasons if he didn’t.
Besides, the GM has time to figure out if Blashill is the one to handle a team good enough to get to the postseason and make a run. In the meantime, there are other decisions to make.
There is an expansion draft this offseason. There is free agency and potential trades and more scouting to prepare for the 2021 NHL draft. And while it’s hard to imagine the Wings spending much on free agents, Yzerman has said he is open to making a few moves.
It would help if the Wings got better lottery luck this time. Even without it, a few promising prospects remain.
Joe Velano is already here and has shown promise in his few games. For someone so young – he is 21 – he is strong with the puck, which hasn’t been a strength of the Wings in recent times. Add in the play of Fabbri and the consistency of Dylan Larkin and the (hoped for) health of Tyler Bertuzzi, and the Wings should be a little more competitive next season.
This year, the defense and goaltending improved and led to more wins than a year ago. Now it’s time to see a bump on the other end of the ice.
At this point, that’s the goal, if you’ll forgive the pun: Steady improvement and a few signs of sizzle and playmaking. Vrana already has helped that.
Expect Yzerman to keep scouring rosters for players who need a change or a break or a different role. He showed a great eye this way as GM in Tampa. He showed patience, too, though it’s a trait he has always had.
He’ll need it the next few seasons as he continues to reboot the franchise that made him, and that he spent so many years making into his own image. He came back for a chance to do it again.
Two years in and it’s not hard to spot a direction. Just watch Vrana fly around the ice. Then think about the move that brought him here.