Monday was a rare good day to be a fan of the Detroit Red Wings. Not only did the last-place Wings beat the tied-for-first Carolina Hurricanes for the second game in a row—a 3-1 victory in which Jonathan Bernier stopped 37 shots—but they also made a surprising and welcome trade that (delightfully) became public about a half-hour after the trade deadline passed. After a few days spent trading fringe guys for low draft picks in the lead-up to the deadline, Detroit pulled the trigger on a big one with Washington that sent top goal-scorer Anthony Mantha to the Caps in exchange for Richard Panik, Jakub Vrana, a first-rounder this year and a second-rounder next year.
There is perhaps an emotional cost to this trade, on both sides. Caps fans have noted that Vrana acted as translator for Vitek Vanecek, and that trading your goalie’s best friend is maybe not the ideal move even when trying to improve for a Cup run. Mantha leaving Detroit, too, doesn’t necessarily boost morale in the short term, as captain Dylan Larkin will apparently need some time for the news to really sink in.
“It hurt,” Larkin said after the trade was made public. “It was hard. We’ve been together for a long time and we’ve kind of grown up together. And we still have a lot of growing to do, but he’s one of my best friends in life.”
On the other hand, this move feels like something to celebrate if you cheer for Detroit, and it makes for yet another reason to believe in GM Steve Yzerman as he tries to completely remake this team from a burned-out pile of ashes into a Cup contender in the mold of his old Lightning boys. As Pierre LeBrun pointed out yesterday, this move is essentially two trades in one—the Red Wings taking on Panik’s pricey contract and receiving a pick as a sweetener, and the Caps sending Vrana and another draft pick for what they see as at least a short-term upgrade in the form of a much bigger winger who won’t need a big new contract at the end of this year. (Vrana’s an RFA in the summer; Mantha is signed through 2024.)
That first one, the Panik deal, is not the kind of move that every team could or should make, but given the Red Wings’ specific circumstances it makes a lot of sense. Detroit has plenty of salary cap space for Panik’s $2.8 million hit through 2023, particularly as many of their larger albatrosses come off the board after this season, and Panik can also potentially serve as a guy they can expose in the upcoming expansion draft so they don’t have to worry about losing a less superfluous forward. And that’s all before even thinking about what Panik can do on the ice. Like a sort of bargain-bin Taylor Hall, the 30-year-old journeyman has played terribly so far this year, but did score 22 goals back in 2016–17, so it’s not as if he’s completely bereft of upside.
The big exciting part of this, however, is obviously the arrival of Vrana in Detroit. Though the contrast in contract situations means that there’s a little more cost uncertainty attached to the 25-year-old Czech, if I were an NHL GM I honestly might have been happy to deal Mantha for Vrana straight-up, without even needing that extra draft pick to convince me. The main difference between these two streaky youngsters, aside from Mantha having size that Vrana does not, is that Mantha has been asked to carry a heavy load on a bad team for some time now, while Vrana—who reportedly has been upset by a lack of opportunity—has only ever been a supporting player on a much better team. Yet Vrana has been able to make the most out of relatively limited chances, in a way where he’s still made almost as much impact as the top-line guy he just got traded for. Mantha has played in 302 NHL games compared to Vrana’s 284. In that time, Mantha has scored 95 goals, or one every 0.31 games, while Vrana has scored 76, or one every 0.27 games. Vrana, however, has averaged an ice time of just 13:41 over his career, while Mantha’s average game sees him out there for 17:19.
When Vrana comes to Detroit, there will be no Alex Ovechkin, no T.J. Oshie, no Nicklas Backstrom, no Evgeny Kuznetsov ahead of him in the pecking order. I can’t wait to see what he does with the training wheels off.