Making sense of Detroit Red Wings’ decision to risk losing Jakub Vrana for nothing

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Red Wings could have opted to waive forward Adam Erne, a pending unrestricted free agent, or Magnus Hellberg, one of three goaltenders on the roster.

Instead general manager Steve Yzerman risked losing a top-line winger with a knack for scoring — for nothing.

So what gives with the bold decision to expose Jakub Vrana on waivers Tuesday?

The move comes less than three weeks after Vrana was reinstated by the NHL and Players Association following two months in the players assistance program, designed to assist players dealing with a range of issues relating to anything from mental health to substance abuse.

Vrana was placed in the program Oct. 19, after appearing in two games.

Yzerman was not available for comment Tuesday, and the move came after the Wings had practiced and coach Derek Lalonde had talked to reporters at Little Caesars Arena. But Lalonde did indicate the Wings weren’t going to expose Hellberg, who has emerged as backup to Ville Husso during Alex Nedeljkovic’s struggles.

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“I foresee us holding three goalies for a little bit,” Lalonde said. “That may change with the reality of possibly needing that roster spot. Alex is still in the mix. I know it doesn’t feel like that, he hasn’t played for a long time. It’s been unique to have a three goalie system — practice, travel, who is backing up, who is not.”

Lalonde confirmed Erne will be the odd man out Wednesday when the Wings host the New Jersey Devils. That is because Robby Fabbri is ready to make his season debut after rehabilitating his right knee from offseason surgery. His availability triggered the need to make room both on the 23-man roster, and in the lineup.

Waiving Erne would have been the easy decision — he is in the last year of his contract, and doesn’t appear to fit into the team’s future. With Tyler Bertuzzi and Filip Zadina projected to return later this month, the Wings will also have to trim a goaltender at some point.

But the Wings appear to be out of patience with Vrana.

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Losing Vrana this season for a significant chunk was a blow to the Wings, who counted on the forward to be a major part of their offense. Dealing with an off-ice issue is one thing, and whatever Vrana was going through deserves support. But last year he showed up late for camp, and was on the ice for 10 minutes before a shoulder injury required attention. It turned out to be something that had lingered since the previous season, and required surgery, and sidelined Vrana 56 games. That was a major setback for a team that at the time did not have much in the way of scoring power.

In nearly two years with the Wings, Vrana has played 39 games, producing 22 goals and 10 assists.

Vrana could certainly find a taker. Being able to fit his contract, which carries a $5.25 million salary cap hit through 2023-24, is an issue, but could be solved via a trade or waivers. The appeal is getting a player who is 26 and who needs only one shot to score — and getting him for nothing. Vrana is a former first-round pick (No. 13 overall in 2014 by Washington) who has 98 goals among 189 points in 323 games. He’s posted two 20-goal seasons. He’s a top-six winger and power-play threat with a nose for offense. Vrana is the type of player contenders covet at the trade deadline, and now he is available for free. And if it doesn’t work out, a team could do what the Wings did, and place him on waivers again.

We’ll find out at 2 p.m. Wednesday whether Vrana is claimed or cleared. If no team claims him, he could be assigned to the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins.

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her latest book, “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft,” is available from  Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

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