Jakub Vrana bit his lip and glanced up at the Capital One Arena video board during a break in the first period Tuesday evening. There, he saw a loop of footage of himself as a Washington Capital: the day he was drafted, the night he scored a goal in an outdoor game in Annapolis, Md., the celebration in the streets of Washington after the team’s Stanley Cup win in 2018. When the montage finished, a message from the Capitals simply read: “Welcome back Jakub.”
It had been a little under two years since Vrana had been part of a package traded from Washington to the Detroit Red Wings for Anthony Mantha, and Tuesday marked the first time that Vrana had returned to Washington to face Mantha and his old team. Vrana received a standing ovation after the video was played and the 26-year-old waved to the crowd in appreciation. Mantha sat on the bench nearby and looked on.
With the March 3 NHL trade deadline approaching, it was hard Tuesday not to think about the deal that reshaped both of their careers. At the time, the trade — Washington sent Vrana, Richard Panik and two draft picks to Detroit for Mantha — was viewed as a blockbuster, though it is no longer seen that way. Vrana, who entered the league’s player assistance program earlier this season, was just happy to be playing Tuesday night, his first NHL game since October. And Mantha suffered another setback in what has been at times a frustrating season, leaving the game with an upper-body injury in the middle of the second period as the Red Wings handed the Capitals a 3-1 loss.
“It felt unbelievable,” Vrana said afterward of playing. “Just happy I got the opportunity to be back here and play.”
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Vrana clearly still stirs something in Capitals fans, many of whom were critical of the franchise on social media after the trade. The move was a stunner — it came in the final minutes before the deadline as Mantha, a top-six forward expected to be a key piece of the Red Wings rebuild, was instead transformed into an asset who could bolster Washington’s ambitions of winning another Stanley Cup.
Both had promising starts with their new franchises after the swap and they’ve shared similar tracks since. Mantha has a larger body of work — he’s played in 105 games with the Capitals, while Vrana has appeared in 40 with the Red Wings — and both have scored just 22 goals. Both players endured shoulder surgeries that sidelined them for most of last season and have been in and out of the lineup this year. Vrana played 17 games in the American Hockey League. Mantha has been a healthy scratch in four games. Both have a year remaining on their contracts — Vrana at a $5.25 million cap hit, Mantha at $5.7 million — and both are still looking to prove themselves.
“I still think I can give more to this team,” Mantha said last week. “As a player and competitor, you always think you can give more. That’s what I’m trying to focus on. I still have a year and a half to show them, to give my all over here before I’m due for a contract, so for me it’s just to keep pushing forward and to keep helping this team.”
While Washington Coach Peter Laviolette said Mantha would be evaluated Wednesday, his upper-body injury was another blow to a difficult year. Mantha has been moved around the lineup and has searched for confidence, but has gone the past 15 games without a goal.
“Obviously it’s been a hard last month and a half,” he said. “I just need to keep pushing forward. I think points and goals are going to come eventually. It’s just a matter of time.”
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There are no concrete plans either for Vrana to remain in Detroit’s lineup — he had only been called up on Feb. 14 after playing 17 games with the team’s AHL affiliate and his name has been the subject of trade deadline speculation. Vrana has not spoken publicly of his time in the league’s player assistance program, which is designed to help players with concerns ranging from mental health issues to substance abuse. It was a steep climb to get back to where he was Tuesday; he returned to the sport in December and was put on waivers by the Red Wings to clear room for another player. Vrana cleared waivers after the league’s 31 other teams didn’t pick him up and he went back to the AHL to try to rebuild his career.
“It’s not something a player wants to hear, I would say. You just accept it for what it is.” Vrana told the Detroit Free Press this week. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. I mean, I have a contract next year, right? I want to play here. I want to be a Red Wing.”
Both players worked to make an impression against their former clubs Tuesday. Mantha had two shots on goal before leaving with his injury. Vrana flashed his speed, which included chasing down Washington’s Nic Dowd on a breakaway and swatting away a scoring chance. They rarely crossed paths on the ice, but a reminder of how their trade still strikes a chord could be found after the tribute video began in the first period. The Capital One Arena fans stood and gave a loud ovation. Vrana’s former teammates craned their necks and watched. Vrana stopped and reflected on the time when everything was still ahead of him in his career.
“That was really nice of them. I had a lot of flashbacks in the arena, of course,” he said. “But once the puck dropped, it was all business.”