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Between Vrana and a Hard Place

The news out of practice is what you would logically expect after yesterday's news. According to Gulitti's report from practice: John Madden is definitely going to play, Brian Rolston is possible, and Bobby Holik is cleared to play. However, what is new and also interesting from Gulitti also notes that Petr Vrana is going to get more ice time in Lowell on a conditioning assignment - so he's not at risk of having to clear waivers.There's been some criticism elsewhere about how Vrana's ice time has been largely limited to Cam Janssenian proportions.

2008 - Petr Vrana 16 1 0 1 -4 2 0 0 0 0 6 16.7

Vrana stayed on the roster after training camp, originally as an extra forward. As injuries plagued the Devils, Vrana was the first to be called in to action and made his NHL debut on October 18, 2008 against Washington. He deflected a Patrik Elias shot - yes, Vrana got to play with Elias - for his first NHL goal and he played 7:02 in a 4-3 win. However, that would be the only point he'd score so far this season with the Devils. Despite a brief burst of minutes, namely in a home-and-home with Philly in late October, sub-10 minute games became the norm. Just look at his game log and you can see that Vrana has not been racking up the minues. Even with the few minutes he has, he's not exactly firing on all cylinders with 6 shots on net over 16 games. Surely he could have had more even with limited minutes per game, right?

Still, given the number of injuries to the team in the past 6-8 weeks or so, you'd think Vrana would get more time. He's certainly versatile to fill in at center or wing. He's got some talent, otherwise he wouldn't have stuck around after training camp. However, Sutter has thought otherwise. Whatever the reason may be, I think Gulitti uncovered a very big reason as to why he hasn't gotten more minutes back in mid-November:

Rookie forwards Petr Vrana and Nicklas Bergfors have also had some trouble in the defensive zone, which was one of the reasons why Sutter chose to use Brookbank at right wing and sit Vrana on Saturday.


"Like I told them, I want them to play well without the puck. I want them to be solid defensively and in the offensive zone they can try things, they can do things, but they can't do it at the risk of allowing odd-man rushes to happen against us by making high-risk plays. That's what I want from those kids.

This quote from Sutter is incredibly telling. First off, Vrana is still learning the NHL game. He's not picking it up as fast as, say, Anssi Salmela; and that's OK. However, the cruel reality is that these games count and Vrana's learning curve is holding him back in terms of performance. Therefore, Vrana's not putting out the shifts that would command a coach to give a player more ice time. Second, and more importantly, Vrana's backchecking isn't ready for prime time. This is the New Jersey Devils organization: if you can't play good defense, you're not going to get a lot of ice time. It's a learning process, yes, but that's how it is with the Devils. If progress isn't being seen on the ice, along with not seeing shots get on net or strong puck movement, then there's no reason to reward such a player with more minutes.

Third, and this is aside from the quote, the Devils have 3 full lines of forwards even with the injuries to Rolston and Holik. That makes it incredibly tough for any of the Devils prospects at forwards at cracking the NHL lineup. For Vrana or Nicklas Bergfors or Barry Tallackson or anyone to break into those lines, two things has to happen. Either Sutter randomly draws their name in the In-Game Line Shuffle, or they have to show that they are better than one of those players. Better as in, their play on the ice demands that they get attention over someone else. Right now, Petr Vrana is in no way better than Elias, Zubrus, Gionta, Parise, Zajac, Langenbrunner, Pandolfo, Madden, or Clarkson. And even when some of those 9 are injured, because Vrana didn't take advantage of the shifts he had (no shots, no hits, not a lot of passing, etc.), he definitely didn't show he's deserving of more ice time. Sutter really has no reason to put him out there more often, as a result. Combine that with Vrana's learning curve and his inexperience at defense, and it should make some more sense why he's been getting fewer than 10 shifts a night since November 5.

I have to say, I don't think Vrana's days as a Devil are numbered. New Jersey has only sent him down to Lowell on a conditioning assignment. What that means is that he will be in Lowell for 2 weeks and then he's back to New Jersey. He doesn't go through waivers, so the Devils won't lose him. At the same time, Vrana can get some confidence back, help out Lowell, and work on some parts of his game. In the short term, I think this is a good move.

The real concern here is what the Devils are going to do with Vrana after he returns from Lowell. By then, Rolston and Holik could be back and in-form and so he'll have to compete with an established Mike Rupp and the other young forwards in the system (e.g. Leblond, Tallackson, etc.). From the outset, it seems he'll almost have to be an extra forward again, spelling other forwards from time to time and being on hand if/when injuries strike again. I fear that would only stall his development, but what else does he really have to prove in Lowell anyway? Maybe an established Devils regular may end up on another team this season and so Vrana is being kept up to eventually replace him? Vrana would be able to step right in since he has already been practicing with the NHL team and being coached by Sutter. I don't have a real good answer, hopefully the New Jersey organization and Brent Sutter does. In the mean time, all I can say for Vrana is just to do what Sutter asks of him and put together some good shifts. Even then, he can at least be a contributor - even if his spot in the line-up is in flux.