Jakub Vrana spent Monday exploring St. Louis. The sun shone, it was warm, a pleasant first day of spring perfect for a trip to the zoo.
“It was nice, really nice,” Vrana told the Free Press. “We went for a walk. We had a little tour at the zoo — we saw otters, sea lions, lions, polar bears, so it was all very nice. I’ve been feeling really well.”
Vrana sounded as good as he has looked since joining the Blues at the March 3 trade deadline. He had five goals and one assist after seven games, thriving after getting the fresh start that he and the Detroit Red Wings agreed was needed after two turbulent years.
“In the situation I was in, I just wanted to get back on the ice and back playing in the NHL,” Vrana said. “I just wanted to help a team with what I can do on the ice. As everybody could see, since I came back from program, I couldn’t really crack the lineup in Detroit, I didn’t really get much opportunity. I think for both ways, we moved on and I got opportunity here in St. Louis and I couldn’t be more happy. I get opportunity to play a lot of minutes and I have opportunity to produce. It has been going really well.”
Had things gone well for Vrana in Detroit, the games this week between the Wings and Blues would not shine such a spotlight on him. But things went awry two games into this season, and never recovered.
When Vrana suited up against his other former team, the Washington Capitals, on Feb. 21, it was his first game after an eventful four months. Vrana, 27, was placed in the NHL and NHLPA players assistance program Oct. 19, and reinstated Dec. 16. The Wings loaned him to the minors on a conditioning assignment — and then general manager Steve Yzerman signaled that Vrana no longer fit into plans by placing him on waivers. With a year left on a deal with a $5.25 millin salary cap hit, there were no takers, and Vrana stayed in the minors. He struggled at first, but never lost his determination.
“When I was away, I gained a lot of new information and help and support,” Vrana said. “Unfortunately while I was away, I lost my spot on the team and when I came back, I couldn’t get that spot back. There are some things I cannot control, and I try to work hard and play my best.”
Vrana was called up in mid-February, and played three games before March 3. That’s the day Yzerman struck a deal with the Blues in which the Wings retained 50% of Vrana’s salary in return for a 2025 seventh-round pick.
“On the day when the trade deadline was, I woke up and Steve called me,” Vrana said. “He basically told me he traded me to St. Louis Blues. He wished me luck on and off the ice and said that this is just the way they wanted to make the decision. I accepted it — that’s how the business works.”
Yzerman said something similar at the time of the trade: “I don’t think I can really go into details on a lot of the things that have gone on. It was just time for both parties to move on.”
Vrana is a gifted offensive player, something the Wings lack. He showed that as soon as he arrived at the 2021 trade deadline, scoring eight goals in 11 games. Shoulder surgery delayed his availability the next season, but he still scored 13 goals in 26 games.
“I had a great start with Detroit,” Vrana said. “I fit in really well at the beginning, scoring goals and producing. I had some challenges in my life with my injury, but I came back and had a pretty strong finish last season. For what happened this season, there are some things in life that has to be dealt with. I took care of my stuff off the ice and I came back and I was ready to join the group right away. Unfortunately there was some decision made and I didn’t have my spot when I came back. I tried to do my best to get back to where I was, but that wasn’t the case. For the next step, it was for me to get a fresh start here in St. Louis.”
Vrana’s success doesn’t surprise his former teammates.
“For him, to see himself as a good hockey player, I think that’s really good that he is making those steps and I am very happy for him,” Dominik Kubalik, a fellow Czech, said. “I don’t want to say he was happy, but for sure some relief, he kind of felt like fresh start, clean table, everything is going to be new for him. I’m very happy for him.”
Coach Derek Lalonde noted the similarities to Vrana’s arrival in Detroit.
“He was in the same situation in Washington where was being healthy scratched,” Lalonde said. “A fresh start helped him in Detroit. I just think the fresh start is good for him. It looks like in the bigger picture, the success he is having is probably more a reflection of where his life is away from the rink, which is great. I hope he can sustain it, not only through this year, but hopefully he can contribute to them next year, too.”
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.