Why Detroit Red Wings say ’13 and waiting’ is a good spot for Jakub Vrana

Detroit Free Press

SEATTLE — Half an hour after his teammates had departed, Jakub Vrana was still on the ice, still skating, still shooting pucks.

Once again, he was, as his coach termed it, “the 13th forward” for the Detroit Red Wings. It is an unusual situation for a forward as skilled as Vrana to be in, but then, it has been an unusual season for him. He ended up on waivers in January, and, even after being recalled from the minors last week, he has made do with being on the sidelines.

“I accept the role right now,” Vrana told the Free Press on Saturday. “I am just going out there and getting better and staying out there on the ice and working on my game. I am ready to be back whenever the opportunity comes.”

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The opportunity didn’t come Feb. 15, the day he rejoined the Wings for the first time since being assigned to the minors Dec. 28. They won that night in Edmonton, so the same forward group played again the next night in Calgary. With another successful outcome, the Wings took a five-game winning streak against the Seattle Kraken on Saturday night.

Hence why Vrana spent an extra 30 minutes on the ice at Saturday’s morning skate at Climate Pledge Arena.

“Someone gets hurt, something changes, he’s available, like any other 13th we’ve had,” coach Derek Lalonde said. “I think it’s more to do with the consistency and success with our lineup than getting him in just to get him in.”

The Wings didn’t hesitate to make changes to a winning lineup when defenseman Jake Walman was available at Calgary after a short-term injury. Forward Lucas Raymond, likewise, will be back as soon as he recovers from a lower-body injury that, a week after it happened, has him still considered day-to-day.

Vrana’s situation is different, impacted by what has been a turbulent season: Two games in, he was placed in the players’ assistance program, emerging two months later and reinstated Dec. 16. A conditioning assignment to the minors made sense, but then general manager Steve Yzerman placed Vrana on waivers on Jan. 3.

“I got a call from Steve that I’m on waivers,” Vrana said. “Obviously it’s not something a player wants to hear. I just accepted it as it is and moved on.”

Yzerman has not publicly addressed the decision, but the fact is, he was willing to lose Vrana — a guy who can score out of nowhere, and whose history indicates he could be a 40-goal scorer — for nothing in return.

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Vrana wasn’t claimed by another team, so the conditioning loan became an assignment to the minors. He struggled the first few weeks, as he basically had to start from scratch after being away from hockey from mid-October to mid-December.

“In the beginning, it was not there,” Vrana said. “It was a different league and everything, and I had to adjust my game a little bit to that league, find a way to score goals and create some offense. Now I’m back with Detroit and practicing and just doing my best to be able to help the team as much as I can if I play, and that’s where I am right now.”

Yzerman tried to unload Vrana via waivers and found no takers, but the GM may find interest ahead of the March 3 trade deadline. Most of Vrana’s $5.25 million salary this season has been paid, he has shown he has his game in order (four goals, four assists in a six-game point streak in the minors leading up to the call-up), and the Wings have the flexibility to retain as much as 50% of the $5.25 million salary cap hit that remains on what is left of Vrana’s contract, which runs through next season.

All that really makes sense for Vrana to do is to focus on the present.

“I want to be playing here, that’s the goal,” he said. “I get the opportunity to be here and I’m really thankful and just doing the best I can to be back playing, and that’s where I am right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen — I mean, I have a contract next year, right, so I want to play here. I want to be a Red Wing.”

Vrana has been with the Wings just short of two years, acquired on April 12, 2021, in an 11th-hour trade deadline deal swung by Yzerman principally to get the Washington Capitals’ first-round pick that year. Vrana posted eight goals in the 11 games he played for the Wings that spring, but things soured at training camp the next fall, when he arrived late and with a shoulder injury that ended up requiring surgery, limiting him to 26 games last season. In 22 months with the Wings, Vrana has played just 39 games — but he has 22 goals in that span.

Hence, the intrigue as to when Vrana will reappear in the lineup. This isn’t like scratching a reserve journeyman.

“You’re excited about the potential of him scoring goals,” Lalonde said. “I think the beauty about Vrana is, he seems to be in a really good spot. He’s asked us to treat him like everyone else. We’re excited to have him. It’s just, he’s 13 and waiting there, and it’s a good spot.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames.

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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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