understands his place at the end of the New Jersey Devils
bench. Heck, for now the 23-year-old center from the Czech Republic is happy enough to have a seat on the bench.
With injuries to fellow centers Bobby Holik
and Brian Rolston
, Vrana was forced into the lineup last month. His ice time is limited and he hasn't scored since getting his first NHL goal in the first period of his first game, but the experience of being in the League may be more beneficial than the small role that he plays for the Devils.
"It's not easy and it takes a lot of adjustment, but it would be different if I was in the AHL again," Vrana told NHL.com. "That would be frustrating. Up here, I can't be complaining. I am just glad that I even get 7 minutes a game. It's a different feeling, but it's good for me. Either way you learn something from it, whether it's positive or negative."
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Vrana, the team's second-round pick in 2003, spent the last 3 seasons in the American Hockey League, first with the Albany River Rats and the last two with the Lowell Devils. He went from being a bit player in Albany in 2005-06 to the leading scorer in Lowell last season, with 61 points in 80 games.
This fall, he felt confident enough to come into training camp with the single goal of making the Devils' final roster. Anything else would have been unacceptable.
"I wasn't thinking the AHL was an option still," Vrana said. "I came in here ready. From the beginning I was doing the things I was told to do in the last 3 years in the minors and so far it has worked out."
Vrana hates to admit it, but his good fortune is a result of some bad luck.
He started the season as a healthy scratch for the first 4 games, but when Rolston was lost to a sprained ankle Oct. 16, Devils coach Brent Sutter
turned to Vrana.
"He just has to come in and be a solid player for us, solid in all 3 zones," Sutter told reporters the morning before Vrana's NHL debut in Washington. "He's going to be fine. He's an intelligent player."
Vrana scored that night by redirecting a shot from Patrik Elias
, who picked up his team record 365th career assist on the goal. Vrana hasn't scored since and has only 5 shots on goal this season while averaging just 8:41 of ice time per game.
Just like he had to adjust 3 seasons ago when he turned professional after 3 seasons with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Vrana is finding a way to adjust to being a bit player again, only this time in the NHL.
"I went through it in the minors a couple of years ago and it's not a bad thing," said Vrana, who captained the Czech Republic to a bronze medal at the 2005 World Junior Championship. "You have to stay focused and stay ready for every shift. You can't sit there watching the stands. You have to stay focused, knowing your chance may be coming. When it does, you have to jump in there and try to look natural, try to look fresh and not like you're out of place."
Part of the reason for Vrana's limited ice time is he's centering the fourth line, and when the game is close, especially in the third period, Sutter shrinks his rotation. The Devils have already played 8 one-goal games, including 5 that were decided in either overtime or a shootout.
"This is an opportunity when guys are out of the lineup, but at the same time there are circumstances that come into play," fellow fourth-liner Mike Rupp
told NHL.com. "Unfortunately the last couple of games they have been close and we as a fourth line aren't really looked to for goals. When we need a goal we shorten the bench and that usually means us getting less ice time. It's an opportunity, but we have to be ready for when we get more ice time."
Rupp, for one, is sold on Vrana as an NHL player.
"He's got awareness for the game and that's stuff you can't necessarily teach," Rupp said. "He reads plays well. He creates offense. He does the simple plays. When you do the simple plays I think you have a definite future in the League. If you're coming up and taking a lot of chances, it's hit or miss."
Ironically, Vrana spent the first couple of games playing with Elias, a fellow Czech, who went against the play-it-simple philosophy by telling the kid "to try to do things, not to keep it too simple," Vrana said. "He said, 'You're playing with me, try to show them that you can play.' "
No matter what philosophy he follows, Vrana must be doing something right.
It's November and he's with the New Jersey Devils
, not the Lowell Devils.
"It has been a great ride so far," Vrana said. "I'm hoping to hang around."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com.