Detroit – It’s not clear when Detroit Red Wings forward Jacob Vrana will return to the lineup, but right now, that’s not what matters to him or anyone else in the team’s locker room.
He’s just happy to be back with the guys.
Vrana, 26, returned to practicing with the Red Wings (13-10-6) Friday in a blue jersey disconnected after the NHL and NHL Players Association announced he was cleared from the player assistance program.
“I feel great,” Vrana said. “I’m very happy to be back and to meet the players. It’s really positive and I’m just happy to be back here.”
Vrana has been away from the team since October 19, when he joined the program indefinitely. He was cleared to play after receiving treatment and “entered the follow-up care phase” of the programme, the statement said.
Vrana answered questions from the media on Friday but declined to elaborate on his experience on the programme. The player assistance program is extensive. It is designed to give players the right to a secret experience – if they so choose – in order to encourage asking for help when needed.
“There are bigger things in life than hockey. You’ll get it in order. You’ll deal with some sad things, which are 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 of the most important decisions in your life.
“And hockey goes along with that.”
Vrana, a native of Prague, Czech Republic, said he’s been skating “a bit” but doesn’t know when he’ll be physically fit to get back on the ice for a game.
“I was trying to keep fit as much as I could, and I felt really good on the ice. Now, it’s just a matter of time. It’s obviously not my decision. I just follow orders and do the best I can every day,” said Vrana. It’s up to other people to make that decision, you know? I just come here and work hard and see where that takes me.”
Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde offered no clarity on that front, but said he wanted to make sure the team was “really patient” with Frana getting back into things, especially “with all the bodies out.” According to Lalonde, “It will be a day-to-day process with Jacob.”
“It’s great to have him back… Now, the next step is when we think he can prepare for the game. It’s clear he’s been out for more than two months,” said Lalonde. “…we want to put him in the best position to be successful when he’s ready for the game. When will that be? I don’t know.”
The Detroit coach didn’t hesitate, however, when asked what Vrana skills he’d add to the lineup: “Goals,” he said.
Vrana, #13 in the 2014 draft, was acquired by the Red Wings at the 2021 trade deadline in a deal that included former Red Wings first round draftee Anthony Mantha. Since joining the Red Wings, Vrana has scored 22 goals and had 10 assists in 39 games over three seasons. Shoulder surgery kept Vranna out of the lineup until Detroit’s 58th game prior to the season. He played two games this season – he had a goal and an assist in the team’s second game – before entering the Player Assistance Program.
“He’s a finisher by nature. His numbers prove it. His goals per game, his goals per 60, (he’s) one of our best players,” said Lalonde.
The Red Wings got good news at two of their top six forwards on Friday, as captain Dylan Larkin is also back in practice, wearing an off-the-shoulder jersey. Larkin snapped out of Tuesday’s loss to Carolina with a shot in 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).
However, the fact that Larkin has a chance to return on Saturday is a very positive development for the Wings. There was reason to worry that Larkin would be out for an extended period with an 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 a reduced puck — and lack of morning skates — in Saturday’s game against Ottawa (13-14-2) could muddy the process of whether Larkin is ready to go.
“It was encouraging. On practice, I didn’t know if he was going to be able to rehearse. Obviously, a lot of actors today,” said Lalonde. “We’ll see how he responds through training. Unfortunately we don’t get to ski in the morning tomorrow, so there will be a lot of gray areas on a lot of the guys.
“And he (Larkin) would probably have a game time decision, which is positive, obviously, from where we were a couple of days ago.”
Back on the blue line
Defenseman Philip Hronik, who was enjoying his recovering year (six goals and 18 assists in 29 games) before taking a fearsome hit from Wild forward Ryan Reeves on Wednesday, looks set to be fine for Saturday. He was fully involved in Friday’s practice.
Oli Mata returned to training with the Red Wings on Friday after a bout with pneumonia that has kept him out of the lineup since the Dec. 6 win over Tampa Bay. Mata said he’s gotten sick four or five times in his life and is on antibiotics.
“It was so bad. I didn’t feel like a normal flu at all,” Mata said. “It took a few days to figure it out and luckily we have great medical staff here, so we finally figured out what it was…but it wasn’t fun.”
Lalonde included Maatta in the “gray area” we mentioned earlier and noted that the Red Wings’ first-year defenseman was “working” through coaching, “which is certainly understandable.”
“He will probably take the warm-up tomorrow and it will be a decision after the warm-up on how he feels,” Lalonde said.
Red Wings vs. Senators
face off: 1 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
TV/Radio: ESPN+ / 97.1
prospects: Since November ended with a four-game winning streak, the Red Wings have lost seven of their last nine games (2-5-2), including four straight (0-3-1). The Senators aren’t quite as far ahead as many thought they would go this year, but they’ve won three straight going into Saturday and are up with wins in seven of their last 10 games.