Detroit — It is unclear when Detroit Red Wings forward Jakub Vrana will return to the lineup, but right now, that’s not what matters to him or anybody else.
He’s just happy to be back.
Vrana, 26, returned to practice with the Red Wings (13-10-6) Friday in a blue non-contact jersey after it was announced by the NHL and NHL Players’ Association that he was cleared from the Players’ Assistance Program and is back to available status.
Vrana has been away from the team since Oct. 19, when he joined the program indefinitely. He was cleared to play after receiving treatment and “has entered the follow-up-care phase” of the program, the statement said.
Vrana answered questions from the media Friday but declined to speak in detail about his experience in the program. The Player Assistance Program is designed to give players the right to a confidential experience — if they so choose — in order to encourage seeking help when it’s needed.
“There’s bigger things than hockey in life. You’re gonna get it in order. You’re gonna deal with some things that is sad, that is bigger than hockey, or whatever it could be,” Vrana said. “It’s important to make that decision and — (before) it’s too late, or whatever — you have to make some decisions that are more important in your life.
“Hockey goes besides.”
Vrana said that he has been skating “a little bit” but does not know when he’ll be physically fit to return to the ice for a game.
“I’ve been trying to stay in shape as much as I could, and I felt really good on the ice. Now, it’s just a matter of time. Obviously, it’s not my decision. I just follow the orders and do the best I can every day,” Vrana said. “… It’s up to other people to make that decision, you know? I just come here and work hard and see where it takes me.”
Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde said that he wants to make sure that the team is “really patient” with integrating Vrana back into things, especially “with all the bodies out.”
“We wanna put him in the best position to be successful when he’s game-ready. When is that going to be? I don’t know,” Lalonde said. Detroit’s coach did not mince words, however, when asked what Vrana’s skillset brings to the line: “Goals,” he said.
Vrana, the No. 13 pick in the 2014 draft, was acquired by the Red Wings at the 2021 trade deadline in a deal that included former first-round Red Wings draft pick Anthony Mantha. Since joining the Red Wings, Vrana has 22 goals and 10 assists over 39 games.
“He’s a natural finisher. His numbers prove that out. His goals per game, his goals per 60, (he’s) one of our top guys,” Lalonde said.
The Red Wings got good news on two top six forwards Friday, as captain Dylan Larkin also returned to practice, in a non-contact jersey. Larkin exited Tuesday’s loss against Carolina after taking a shot to the hand and missed Wednesday’s loss at Minnesota, but is expected to be a “game-time decision” for Saturday’s game against the Ottawa Senators (1 p.m., Little Caesars Arena).
Still, the fact that Larkin has a chance to return Saturday is a massively positive development for the Wings. There was reason to be concerned that Larkin would miss extended time because of the injury, especially after Tyler Bertuzzi made his second trip to injured reserve this season, both times after blocking a shot with his hand. Lalonde said the matinee puck drop — and a lack of morning skate — in Saturday’s game against Ottawa (13-14-2) could muddy the process of whether Larkin is ready to go.
“It was encouraging. Going into practice, I didn’t know if he was gonna be able to practice. Obviously, a lot of reps today,” Lalonde said. “We’ll see how he responds from practice. We unfortunately don’t get a morning skate tomorrow, so there’s gonna be a lot of grey area on a lot of guys.
“And (Larkin will) probably be a game-time decision, which is a positive, obviously, from where we were a couple of days ago.”
Back on the blue line
Defenseman Filip Hronek, who was enjoying a bounce-back year (six goals and 18 assists in 29 games) before taking a scary hit from Wild forward Ryan Reaves on Wednesday, appears to be good to go for Saturday. He was a full participant in Friday’s practice.
Olli Matta returned to practice for the Red Wings on Friday after a bout with pneumonia that’s kept him out of the lineup since Dec. 6’s win over Tampa Bay. Maatta said he’s had the illness four or five times in his life and is on antibiotics.
“It was pretty bad. It didn’t feel like a common flu at all,” Maatta said. “Took a couple days to figure it out and thankfully we have a great medical staff here, so we finally figured out what it is…but it wasn’t fun.”
Lalonde included Maatta in the “grey area” players previously mentioned and noted that the first-year Red Wings defenseman was “laboring” through practice, “which is certainly understandable.”
“He’ll probably take warmups tomorrow and it’ll be a post-warmup decision on how he’s feeling,” Lalonde said.
Red Wings vs. Senators
Faceoff: 1 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Outlook: Since closing out the month of November with a four-game win streak, the Red Wings have lost seven of their last nine (2-5-2), including four straight (0-3-1). The Senators aren’t taking a step forward like many thought they would heading into this year, but they’ve won three straight games entering Saturday and picked up wins in seven of their last 10 games.