Krupa: Wings desire return of Vanek’s helpful style

Gregg Krupa, The Detroit News

Detroit — When the Red Wings signed Thomas Vanek, it felt like the hockey equivalent of buying an aftermarket part.

But less than 20 games into the season, and even though he is on the injured list, Vanek feels more like something from the original manufacturer installed on the line.

At first, with Pavel Datsyuk fleeing and general manager Ken Holland intent on securing more offense for a squad challenged to score even with the aging wizard, Vanek seemed like something acquired at a discount to help keep the team running while team officials considered his playing time and whether to re-sign him.

Now, it is as if Vanek is essential to the drivetrain.

His prospective return this week — after missing his 10th straight game Tuesday against the Lightning — is anticipated by his coach and teammates.

Even this early in the season, and only seven games into his stint with the Wings, fans might dutifully check the dates off their pocket schedules, tracking the hiatus.

The Red Wings need to start winning regularly again. They did with Vanek playing, going 5-2.

The Wings need more scoring. Vanek scored.

They need forechecking. Vanek asserted himself there.

Their forwards need to be harder on the puck and more aggressive in puck battles. Vanek regularly checked off those tasks, too.

Integral to success

A 32 year-old player who may not have fully satisfied the management in Minnesota or Montreal before he arrived in Detroit spearheaded a significant sum of the effective Red Wings offense during the six-game winning streak from October 17-27.

He played in the first five of six victories before a strained hip muscle brought him down.

Vanek tallied four goals and four assists in seven games, playing in the style Jeff Blashill hopes the team eventually makes their own: Tougher to play, more on the forecheck and the backcheck, and generating additional quality chances in prime scoring areas.

They also want to play with speed, but Vanek always has been more about the finish than getting there.

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Entering play Tuesday, he remained fourth in scoring on the team despite missing more than half the season.

“Of course, that’s frustrating for the team and myself,” Vanek said of the injury.

“I felt good about my game, and our line was going. And, back then, I figured I’d maybe sit out a game and be back over the weekend, and it just got worse.”

That he is integral underlines the Red Wings problems.

Unfortunately, they are now stubbornly familiar, not yielding readily to any intended remedy afforded by the current roster and threatening to their playoff possibilities and any potential they might improve after disappointing last season.

The lack of offense, the difficulty exiting the defensive zone, the difficulty maintaining possession in the offensive zone and getting the puck on net from desirable scoring areas are characteristics of their play now more than a season old.

Waiting for someone “step up” is either taking quite a bit of time or will remain a quest unsatisfied.

It makes the available roster additions, primarily Vanek and Frans Nielsen more important, along with the potential of Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha.

Role model

So far, Vanek has “grabbed his piece,” as Mike Babcock used to say.

He is not only integral to the Red Wings potential for success, he is now so hard and fast in the lineup after what essentially is a glimpse of him, that he is cited as a role model.

Asked after the morning skate Tuesday what Mantha must do to remain in the lineup with significant ice time, Blashill listed the inventory of requirements and then referenced Vanek’s early success.

“He needs to do, to me, real simple things,” Blashill said of Mantha.

“He needs to make sure he’s accountable defensively. He needs to make sure he is winning puck races. He needs to make sure he is backchecking and tracking real hard.

“If he does those three things, then his skill set takes over, and he’s going to get lots of opportunities.

“It’s a similar message I had for Thomas Vanek, and I think Thomas Vanek did it great, and as a result he was dynamic offensively.”

At $2.6 million, Vanek is a bargain.

Playing as he did before the injury, he is a steal.

And approaching the first-quarter pole, he is positioned as vital to the Red Wings success.

If they are to gain the playoffs, Vanek must play and continue to play well.