Detroit — The Red Wings could use a sliver of good news, and on Thursday they received some.
There’s still a long way to go, but forward Jakub Vrana and defenseman Troy Stecher were involved in practice, in non-contact jerseys, and are taking the next step in returning to game action.
Vrana hasn’t played at all this season, requiring shoulder surgery after getting hurt in the opening 10 minutes of his first training camp practice. Stecher hasn’t played since Nov. 4, and has only appeared in six games this season after needing wrist surgery.
Both were tentatively expected to return around mid- to late February, after the Olympic break — although there is no such thing now — and continue to be on that course.
“There’s a mental side, too, and that’s extremely important for those guys,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “It’s lonely when you’re doing stuff on your own, boring and frustrating, and for Vrana and Stech, they’ve been doing it for a long time. So to try to practice, it’s a big boost for them. It gives them energy in their rehab and that’s important.”
Vrana now has clearance to shoot the puck, and is doing more stickhandling on the ice.
“He’s progressing, and the next step is to come out and be part of the team in a team skate,” Blashill said.
The Wings embark on the all-star game break next weekend. They’ll be off the ice for five days, then resume a slow-paced February schedule of games that originally were postponed, filling in where the Olympic break would have been.
But, don’t expect Vrana to be ramping it up anytime soon, still primarily aiming for a mid-February return for hockey drills.
“He won’t be in a contact (jersey) before the break,” Blashill said. “He’ll be in a non-contact for a while. Being out there today, while exciting for him, and us and for everyone, it doesn’t change the timeline.
“That’s what we’re hoping for (a mid-February full contact return). There’s a doctor appointment in mid-February, and until the surgeon dictates when he’s ready, I don’t know more than that. There’s no way to know until he has that follow-up appointment and the surgeon says he’s ready for contact. What we want to do is get him as ready as possible when he is able to contact, so it doesn’t take as long when he comes back.”
Blashill hasn’t allowed himself the possibility of drawing up potential lines and combinations, while inserting a dynamic goal-scorer such as Vrana into the Wings’ lineup.
Vrana had eight goals in 11 games with the Wings last season, after arriving from Washington in the trade that sent Anthony Mantha to the Capitals.
“We’re just trying to get really focused on the Pittsburgh game (Friday) and the guys who are available for that game,” Blashill said. “When he comes back we’ll see what our lineup looks like. He’s a dynamic player and when (his return) happens, he can add to our team for sure. But in the meantime, we’re just focused on the guys we have.”
Stecher adds to the depth, grit and competitiveness on defense.
“It just adds more accountability when you have another guys that is there and can certainly step in and do anyone’s job,” Blashill said. “When you have depth on your roster, for him personally, it’s hard to be out that long. It was good to see him out there, he is a competitive person that wants to win and do it right, and can add to any lineup in the league. He’s a good player.”
Buckling down defensively
Coming off a disastrous defensive game against Chicago, allowing eight goals in an 8-5 loss, the Wings now have back-to-back games against offensive powerhouses Pittsburgh and Toronto.
“It’s nice to score goals, but you can’t trade offense for offense against,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser said. “It’s hard to win 6-5 or 7-6 in this league. You have to be good in the defensive zone and the penalty kill, take care of your own zone first, because there are too many good players in this league that’ll light you up if not.”
Blashill was not pleased with the amount of rush chances allowed against Chicago.
“We’ve been making progress in that area, and had done a better job over the last couple of weeks, seeing plays and making them and not igniting other people’s rush,” Blashill said. “When you turn the puck over, you ignite their rush, and (Wednesday) we did it too often.”
Goaltender Thomas Greiss (COVID protocol) returned to the ice Thursday, but only worked sparingly. Blashill isn’t counting on Greiss playing in a game against Pittsburgh or Toronto.
“We’re just trying to get him back going,” Blashill said.
… Scoring his 20th goal Wednesday, Tyler Bertuzzi now has 11 goals in his last 14 games. Bertuzzi became the first Wings’ player to reach the 20-goal mark in 35 games played or fewer since Henrik Zetterberg in 2007-08 (21 goals in 28 games).
Red Wings at Penguins
► Faceoff: 7 p.m. Friday, PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh
► TV/radio: BSD/97.1 FM
► Outlook: The Penguins (27-10-5) are proving wrong the skeptics who felt their reign among the NHL’s elite was over. … Pittsburgh has the second-ranked penalty kill (88.4%) and has an endless supply of dangerous offensive players. … LW Jake Guentzel (21 goals) and C Evan Rodrigues (15 goals) have emerged this season.