Traverse City — If Jakub Vrana tried, he wouldn’t have been able to hide his excitement.
Vrana had just finished a complete practice, was healthy, and is thrilled to be playing hockey.
That wasn’t the case last year around this time. About 10 minutes into the Red Wings’ first training camp practice in Traverse City, Vrana felt pain in his shoulder and got off the ice. He’d soon find out he’d need surgery and would miss the first five months of the season.
So, in some ways, this is Vrana’s first real training camp with the Wings.
“I can’t describe my excitement,” Vrana said Friday of being able to compete. “Being out for a long time (last season), and the shortened season the previous season, I wasn’t able to play a full season for a few years. I’m real excited and just focusing on what we have to do. I’m enjoying being here and playing hockey.”
The time span feels longer, but Vrana was acquired from Washington at the April 2021 trade deadline for Anthony Mantha and draft picks. Ironically, Mantha also missed most of last season because of shoulder surgery.
When Vrana returned in March, he gave a glimpse to the Wings and fans of what could have been — and what could be this season. Vrana scored 13 goals and had six assists in 26 games.
In his brief time with the Wings, Vrana has 21 goals in 37 games. Touted as a pure goal scorer, Vrana has lived up to the billing.
“Sometimes you know guys are skilled guys and you have an appreciation for their skill,” said coach Derek Lalonde, who saw plenty of Vrana in Washington while he was in Tampa Bay. “But until you are out with them on the ice you don’t get a true appreciation of how skilled they are. But, man, he has a special shot, and he has some offensive tools that are real special.”
If there were any fears that Vrana would struggle going from a Stanley Cup contender in Washington to a rebuild in Detroit, they’ve been erased by Vrana’s enthusiasm since becoming a Wing.
The ability to play a much larger role and the chance to be a core piece in a growing young team have excited Vrana.
“For sure, obviously, when you play for a team for five years (in Washington, including a Stanley Cup victory), the thoughts are there, but I’m fully a Red Wing now,” Vrana said. “My goals are with the Red Wings now and I can’t be more happy here. The people here are amazing and I’m so happy I can be part of this team that has huge potential, a bright future.
“This is so exciting to build something here that everyone is waiting for.”
After the numerous personnel additions by general manager Steve Yzerman, and a roster that’s a year older and wiser, Vrana can’t wait to get this season going. Just being healthy, too, is a huge factor.
Vrana showed no ill effects when he returned in March, and has been going full tilt in training camp with no reservations.
The chance to get a hockey season underway with a complete training camp was something Vrana was also pointing toward.
“Just getting everything started, seeing the guys again and get rolling again, we have news faces here so it’s real exciting,” Vrana said. “I’m happy to be able to be here.
“Mentally, my shoulder is fixed and I feel good and strong. It’s refreshing to begin every season, a fresh start for all of us here.”
The fact Lalonde has talked often in camp about having the Wings play a fast type of game and utilize their speed is good news for Vrana, one of the speedier Wings.
“I love it,” Vrana said. “We want to be on top of teams. We have a young team that can skate. We have a fast team and the system we have, it can also help us win a lot of pucks and be on top of teams and have a lot of puck possession. That’s what we want, to play in our zone and build something that will work for us as a team.”
But while Vrana has the potential to thrive, there are ways Lalonde feels Vrana can still be more effective overall.
Vrana’s play away from the puck, his defensive game, has been an issue since he was in Washington and was something former Wings coach Jeff Blashill often talked about.
If Vrana becomes a stronger two-way player, it could only help his overall effectiveness.
“A complete game, his play away from the puck,” Lalonde said when asked what he’d like to still see from Vrana. “Even (Thursday’s) practice, we addressed some things, pointed some things out to him to be a little bit better away from the puck. He’s impressive with the puck. Hopefully him being more accountable away from the puck, and to his credit he was better (Friday) on the whole.”
But, the offensive part of Vrana’s game is unique and needed by any team.
“Offense is tough to come by and you need some of those offensive playmakers,” Lalonde said. “I came from a team (Tampa), an organization, where it did not take much to create offense and it just helps. Those guys, you need on a team, you need those types of players and we certainly need one.”
Many fans on social media are predicting and hoping for a 40-goal season from Vrana, given a full schedule and complete health. But Vrana isn’t putting a number on what could be this season.
“I don’t want to put any extra thoughts in my mind for no reason,” Vrana said. “Just doing my best and do what I can do best out there and how I can help my team the most.”
Building off last season
Michael Rasmussen had 15 goals last season, was arguably one of the Wings’ best players the second half, and brought a versatile, gritty two-way game the organization had been waiting for from the rugged 6-foot-6 forward.
Rasmussen, 23, enters this season with increased confidence.
“Confidence is something you go day by day. You can’t get too high or low,” Rasmussen said. “I’m just trying to earn my confidence with my work every day and the rest will take care of itself.”
Lalonde and his staff have told Rasmussen to not change much from what he was doing last spring.
“(They said) I took a lot of strides last year, a lot of positives, and keep using my size and skating and be good defensively,” Rasmussen said. “Take pucks to the net and be around the net and just recover pucks, forecheck well and all the things I’ve been building on.”
Said Lalonde: “He had some confidence from his finish last year and it probably rolled over to his summer and camp here. Hopefully he builds off where he was at the end of last year.”
Tyler Bertuzzi didn’t practice Friday after “something flared up,” said Lalonde.
“I was told an hour before practice that he was unavailable,” Lalonde said. “Probably not too concerning. Put him in that day to day category. He showed up to the rink expecting to practice.”
… Filip Zadina was one of the better Wings on the ice Friday, as Zadina looks for a new start under Lalonde.
“He had a real good day,” Lalonde said. “Maybe he got excited a little (skating on a line) with Dylan (Larkin), but he has a heavy shot. Just like anyone else, we want better away from the puck and he’s probably in the middle of that right now.
“I meant it in the offseason when I said I wanted to give everyone a fresh start.”
Lalonde added he’s been cautious about what he saw from players, both positive and negative, while analyzing video from last season.
… Lalonde was thrilled to see a battle drill between Larkin and Lucas Raymond in which Raymond got the best of Larkin.
“That’s the type of compete you want to establish in practice, you want to have those natural habits,” Lalonde said. “Those drills are there for a reason and Raymond produced real well and that was exciting to see.”