“Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it.”
-- Steven Wright
The Washington Capitals have a good record over the years drafting, developing, and employing goal-scoring wingers from Eastern Europe. Peter Bondra (born in what is now Ukraine), Alexander Semin (Russia), and Alex Ovechkin (Russia) rank second, fifth, and first, respectively, on the club’s all-time goals scored list. Capitals Nation hopes that Jakub Vrana (Czech Republic) is next in line to leave his place among the goal scoring leaders in team history.
But first, Vrana has to complete his rookie season. Although he is just 21 years old, Vrana has had a rich and full development between representing the Czech Republic on the international stage, playing with Linköpings HC in Sweden, and then with the Hershey Bears of the AHL over parts of the last three seasons. Last season, Vrana got his first taste of NHL action, dressing for 21 games with the Caps in two call-ups last season.
As debuts go, it was not electrifying, but it did provide the occasional glimpse of what the Caps might have in the young winger. Vrana scored three goals in those 21 games, all of them on power plays, and two of them of the game-winning variety.
That was the good. But there were disturbing signs as well. Upon returning to the Bears after his second call-up with the Caps, Vrana went 5-5-10, plus-5, in 13 games to end the regular season. The postseason was another matter, though. In the opening round against the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, he was without a point in Games 1-3, and he recorded only two shots on goal. The lack of offensive contribution mattered, even as the Bears held a 2-1 lead after those three games, since the team managed only seven goals in the three games, five of them in Game 1.
Vrana was benched for Games 4 and 5 as the Bears eked out a first round win. But the pattern for Vrana reappeared in Round 2 against the Providence Bruins – no points in the first three games of the series and a benching. He sat for Games 4-6 before taking the ice in a decisive Game 7 that the Bears lost, 4-2. As it turned out, Vrana went without a point in seven postseason games and recorded only three shots on goal. That the Bears managed only 25 goals made his lack of contribution that much more disappointing.
Odd Vrana Fact… Jakub Vrana did not record a point in any game in which he skated more than 11 minutes last season (0-for-10). He was 2-2-4 in seven games in which he skated less than ten minutes.
Despite that disappointing 2017 postseason at Hershey, Vrana did post 35 goals in 88 regular season games with the Bears over parts of three seasons. In 187 games in various settings with Linköpings, he recorded 86 goals. He does have a knack for finding the back of the net.
If anything, Vrana’s two stretches with the Caps last season revealed things he needs to improve. Strangely, one of them might be shooting, or at least getting shots on net. Eight times in 21 games he did not record a shot on goal, although averaging just around 11 minutes a game in those contests might have played a role. His shots tapered off with time, too. He had 21 shots on goal in his first call-up of 12 games, but he had only 11 shots in nine games in his second call-up, and in five of those games (four of his last five) he had no shots on goal.
Potential Milestones to Reach in 2017-2018:
- 100 games (currently has 21)
The Big Question… Can Jakub Vrana be the next version of a renowned Capitals sniper?
Jakub Vrana has perhaps more potential than any prospect in the Capitals’ system. He is, at the moment, the top under-25 player in the system yet to secure a spot on the parent roster. It is always an iffy proposition to attach the term “next [fill-in-the-blank player]” to a player with a skill set such as Vrana’s. However, there does seem to be a clear parallel with him in terms of skill set and developmental arc. Consider that in 1990-1991 the Caps had a 21-year old with a profile as a goal scorer (86 goals in 129 games with VSZ Kosice in Europe in three years before joining the Caps) who could skate like the wind. He had 12 goals in 54 games of his rookie season, four of them power play goals. He did, though have defensive issues as he familiarized himself with the North American game, going minus-10 in his rookie season (his worst until he was a minus-17 with the Caps in his 14th and last season with the club).
Vrana is a 21-year old who has already demonstrated an ability to score goals both in European hockey and in the highest pro level under the NHL. He, like the player who came before him, is a left-handed shot and is of similar size. He would appear to have issues to work through, but he also appears to have the skill set to be a top-notch goal scorer at the NHL level.
Peter Bondra became the most prolific goal scorer in team history (since eclipsed) while playing much of his career with the club in the “dead puck” era. Jakub Vrana, who will wear the number “13,” while his predecessor wore the number “12,” might not reach such lofty goal totals as Bondra, but the similarities in style of play are intriguing enough to wonder if achieving such goals are possible. It makes watching his rookie season with the Caps one of the interesting subplots of the season, to see whether in fact those perceived similarities express themselves in performance.
In the end…
Whatever Jakub Vrana’s potential as a goal scorer, it would be a stretch to think of him as a leader in that statistic on this team, this season. Even rookie goal scorers have an apprenticeship to serve. As noted, Peter Bondra scored 12 goals in 54 game of his rookie season, but then later recorded four 40-plus goal seasons, twice reaching the 52-goal mark. Alexander Semin (the only other 13th overall draft pick in Caps history apart from Vrana) scored 10 goals in 52 games of his rookie season before topping 30 goals three times and hitting the 40-goal mark once. Sure, Mike Gartner recorded 36 goals in his first year with the Caps, but he had a year in the World Hockey Association before joining the Caps, and that was a different, more freewheeling era. And there is Alex Ovechkin with his 52-goal rookie season, but his is the freakish outlier, one of only five player in NHL history to record more than 50 goals in their rookie season.
Jakub Vrana is likely to have a “rookie” season – stretches of production that hints at his potential sprinkled with stretches in which he disappears and perhaps frustrates his coaches (as skilled players sometimes do with their lack of focus in the defensive end). And as with rookies, the important thing to watch for is the kind of player he is in March and April compared to the one he might be in October and November. It is experience he needs, although the team could benefit from his getting it before he needs it…in the spring.
Projection: 69 games, 12-14-26, plus-5
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America