Vrana, Kapanen, Blais in prove-it mode for rebuilding Blues
By STEPHEN WHYNO
Breathing through 25 stitches in his nose, Jakub Vrana beamed about his fresh start with the St. Louis Blues.
"I'm really happy to be here, to start all over again with a new team," he said.
The Blues are happy to have him, courtesy of a trade from Detroit. They're also glad to have Kasperi Kapanen after plucking him off waivers from Pittsburgh and to get Sammy Blais back from the deal that sent Vladimir Tarasenko to the New York Rangers.
Vrana, Kapanen and Blais are all players signed only through next year who are trying to show they deserve major jobs in the NHL. St. Louis sold at the trade deadline and is out of the playoff race, but the early returns from those three are a good start to turning things around and winning again as soon as next year.
"It's a new life for them, and they want to prove themselves, so they're hungry players," coach Craig Berube said. "So far they've been pretty good for us. Hopefully they continue to grow and get to the level they (had) once been."
Blais, a 2014 Blues draft pick and a valuable depth player when they won the Stanley Cup in 2019, has 15 points in his first 22 games back from the New York Rangers. Kapanen has 10 points in his first 14 games, while Vrana scored six goals in his first 11.
They've been doing it thanks to more opportunities. Blais was playing less than 10 minutes a game with the Rangers, Kapanen's role with the Penguins was inconsistent and Vrana played in just five games for the Red Wings sandwiched around his stint in the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program.
Asked if he thought he needed a change of scenery, Vrana responded: "Detroit thinks that for sure, right? So, I accept it and I'm happy for it."
So are his new teammates who got the same.
"It's been feeling good being back here and finding my confidence back a little bit," said Blais, who has more points since his return to St. Louis than he did in 54 games with New York, which included a lengthy absence because of a torn ACL in his right knee. "It's been really good since I've been back here: finding my game, my legs and just got to keep looking forward and playing with confidence."
Confidence is slowly coming back for Kapanen, like Vrana now with his third NHL organization. A first-round pick of Toronto's in 2014, Kapanen signed a $6.4 million, two-year deal with Pittsburgh just last summer before finding himself the odd man out, on waivers and changing teams midseason in February.
It may be the best thing to happen to the son of longtime Finnish forward Sami Kapanen.
"I still have room to improve, but I think it's heading in the right direction," Kasperi Kapanen said. "It's a new start for me, so I'm excited. It's a great team, and the guys have been really making me feel comfortable, which is awesome. When you feel at ease, I think everything comes easier."
Vrana is playing more at ease than he has since his early pro years with the Washington Capitals, whom he helped win the Cup in 2018. A 2021 trade to Detroit for Anthony Mantha did not work out for either team, and Vrana never found his groove with the Red Wings and eventually fell out of favor with management.
Berube praised Vrana's skill and speed and said it'll take some time for the 27-year-old Czech winger to figure out his all-around game. But thanks to the Blues' approach to take a step back this season with an eye on getting right back into contention, he, Kapanen and Blais all have plenty of chances to prove their future value.
"Guys who have stuff to prove have a little bit more pressure on themselves," veteran forward Robert Thomas said. "And they put it on themselves. It's always nice to see those guys succeed and keep on pushing for more."
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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Updated March 27, 2023