Detroit — As the world awaits the identity of the next Red Wings coach — will it remain Jeff Blashill or be someone else — it appears there’s one less question mark regarding the team.
Jakub Vrana is going to be an exciting and possibly impactful player for the Wings. The 11 games at the end of the season, though a snippet of information, sure looked promising.
General manager Steve Yzerman, who hasn’t yet announced his decision whether to retain Blashill, has made a flurry of deals already in his two years retooling the roster.
But acquiring Vrana at this season’s trade deadline (along with Richard Panik and two draft picks) for Anthony Mantha could be an important one going forward.
The draft picks were Washington’s 2021 first-round pick and 2022 second-round pick, so both players could be legitimate prospects. But more so, Vrana, in a brief sample size, looked special.
“He’s the type of player we can use here, a guy who finishes and just has that offensive ability,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said. “He wants to put the puck in the back of the net.
“He’s real good. …He’s got high-end skill, that’s obvious. When he gets the puck in the offensive zone, he creates chances and he’s one of those guys that when he gets a Grade-A scoring chance or a breakaway, he buries those more often than not.”
The offense was sublime, but a nagging item that was hanging over Vrana when he arrived in Detroit was the perception that he didn’t take to coaching.
In his final weeks with the Capitals, Vrana was twice a healthy scratch by Capitals coach Peter Laviolette, with a lack of attention to the defensive side of the rink appearing to be the main issue.
Laviolette addressed the situation the day after Vrana was traded.
“When you say Jakub and me, or Jakub and a coaching staff, it’s just the idea of how a team needs to play in order to be successful on a nightly basis, and certainly in the playoffs when things become heavy,” Laviolette said. “It was never about one person. It’s about a style and way every player has to play on a successful team.
“You have to play with a certain identity and that’s what we’re trying to get through our team, and it’s not always there. It’s inconsistent at times throughout the team. Some of the conversations with Jakub did revolve around that.”
There were also comments by Capitals GM Brian MacLellan after the trade, saying Vrana was “a little frustrated with where he’s at here within the organization. Probably wants a little more ice time, wants more responsibility and there was a tugging war between coaching staff and staffs that have had him and the way he was playing.”
So, there were red flags. But a positive for the Wings was the fact they saw no such issues.
If anything, Vrana went out of his way to receive and embrace the coaching.
In the next-to-last game of the season in Columbus, what excited Blashill wasn’t a highlight-reel goal by Vrana. Rather, it was something only a coach would love to see.
“What I really liked were two unreal backchecks,” said Blashill, a testament to Vrana’s desire to play defense and be accountable to that side of the rink. “That’s the work ethic of someone who wants to become that complete player, and hopefully complete winner, that you need.
“It’s not like he’s without mistakes. He’s going to continue to grow in those areas. But to me it shows what his care level is.”
Blashill consistently saw Vrana’s desire to be a complete player, one who is elite at both ends of the rink.
“We’ve had a number of meetings already, we’ve gone over some things, and he’s done a real good job of being receptive,” Blashill said. “He truly wants feedback and he wants to get better at things.
“He’s a really talented player, and that’s a fact. He needs to keep working on his all-around game, but he’s a really talented player. He can be a real key addition, and what I like most about him is he’s been very receptive to coaching. He wants to get better in those areas that he needs to get better at so he can be out there more, and he’s done a good job of that.
“I’ve learned he cares and he wants to be better and that’s a huge part of it.”
Vrana had 11 points in his 11 games with the Wings, including eight goals. Four came in one game on April 22 against Dallas.
With the Wings decimated by injuries to scoring forwards Dylan Larkin, Robby Fabbri, Tyler Bertuzzi and Bobby Ryan, Vrana supplied much-needed offense.
That, too, was a positive development given Vrana’s role in Washington was secondary behind a group of established veterans such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie, among others.
Vrana will get the chance with the Wings to be that go-to player.
As a restricted free agent, the Wings will need to work out a new contract with Vrana, which will be intriguing to watch unfold. Do the Wings make a long-term deal with Vrana? Or are both sides more agreeable and comfortable with a shorter-term deal?
Regardless, Vrana looked ready for the challenge and the Wings are excited about giving him that opportunity.
“We’ve talked about, it’s one thing to be a complementary player on a team with a whole bunch of skilled players. It’s another thing to try and be a driver,” Blashill said. “I’d love to see him become a driver and be a guy who can really be a go-to guy. To do that you have to have a complete game, and he understands that and he’s working at it.
“I knew he was a good player. He’s more skilled than I realized. He’s got legit, legit ability to score, without a doubt. He’s got a great stick. Now it’s just a matter of becoming that complete player and I’ve learned that he wants to be that.”