“Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you.”
-- Aldous Huxley
Everyone has to start somewhere, and for Jakub Vrana his start in the NHL came on the first night of December 2016. He stepped onto the ice 58 seconds into the contest and recorded a shot on his first shift. It did not go in.
Rats! So much for fairy tale beginnings.
What Vrana did get was more mundane, a couple of cups o’ coffee with the big club. There was the 12-game stint from December 1st through December 27th, and then there was his call-up in late February for 17 days in which he appeared in another nine games.
The first thing that jumps out looking at those 21 games as a whole is that competition mattered. Vrana was 3-3-6 in the 21 games in which he appeared, recording points in five of those games. However, four of those games (and all three win which he recorded a goal) were against clubs that did not reach the postseason (New Jersey, Los Angeles, Buffalo, and the New York Islanders). He did have an assist on the Caps’ only goal in a 2-1 overtime loss to Nashville on March 16th, his last game with the club this season.
There was also the matter of shyness, or rather the lack of it (although this comes with a caveat that we will get to). He had four shots on goal in two of his first three games, three of his first six. He had four or more shots on goal in five games overall. He had more shots on goal per game (1.52) than Lars Eller (1.42), Brett Connolly (1.23), and Tom Wilson (1.16), among other Capitals. This is to be expected; Vrana was drafted as an offensive player. It would not be a stretch to think of him as a reincarnation of Peter Bondra.
But about that caveat. He, like many players of his age and experience, could not sustain that pace of early activity. In his first stint with the club, Vrana had 14 shots on goal in his first six games, seven shots on goal in his last six. In his second tour with the big club, he had ten shots on goal in his first four games, but then he slipped to one shot on goal over his last four games. As if to put an exclamation point on this, his last shot on goal – in Game 18 of his 21-game season – was a goal, a power play goal to open the scoring in a 4-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on March 11th (his only shot on goal of the game).
Fearless’ Take… Only 13 players in Caps history appeared in fewer than 40 games of their very first season in the NHL and scored more goals than Vrana, and only one did it in fewer games than the 21 in which Vrana played (Jaroslav Svejkovsky had seven goals in 19 games in 1996-1997).
Cheerless’ Take… Vrana skated more than 50 5-on-5 minutes with three forwards: Lars Eller, Andre Burakovsky, and Brett Connolly. Only Burakovsky had a worse Corsi-for percentage when apart (55.2 versus 56.1; numbers from stats.hockeyanalysis.com). He had five games in which he registered four or more shots on goal, eight in which he did not record a show. Guess consistency is on the to-do list.
Odd Vrana Fact… Jakub Vrana is only the tenth forward since 2005-2006 to appear in at least 20 games for the Caps in his first ever season. Only five of them – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mathieu Perreault, Andre Burakovsky, and Marcus Johansson – averaged more goals and assists per game in doing so than Vrana. Yeah, we had to dig for that one.
Game to remember… December 9th vs. Buffalo
It would be cliché to say that a player’s first NHL game was the “game to remember,” but when you’re a goal scorer, perhaps it’s that first goal that lasts longer. Going into the game against the Buffalo Sabres on December 9th, Jakub Vrana had dressed for four games. He recorded nine shots in his first three contests, but he was held without a shot on goal in almost 13 minutes against the Boston Bruins in the game before the contest against the Sabres. After the Caps took a 1-0 lead on a T.J. Oshie goal early in the second period, the Caps had a power play when Dmitry Kulikov was sent off on a hooking call. With the power play winding down, Vrana did what veteran goal scorers do. He let others carry the puck while he headed for the net. In this instance it was Evgeny Kuznetsov hauling the puck down the right wing wall. Ducking under Jake McCabe, Kuznetsov curled around the right wing corner and laid the puck out in front. Vrana was right there to redirect the puck past goalie Robin Lehner for his first NHL goal, what would be the game-winning goal in the Caps’ 4-1 win.
Game to forget… March 12th vs. Anaheim
It was the third of a three-game road trip to California, and the first two did not go well for the Caps in general or for Vrana in particular. In Vrana’s case, he was held without a shot on goal in the first game of the trip, a 4-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks. Against the Los Angeles Kings in the second game of the road trip, He did get a goal on his only shot on goal of the contest, the game’s first goal in fact. But the Caps could not hold the lead and dropped another 4-2 decision. The following night in Anaheim against the Ducks, he and the Caps started slow, then faded. Anaheim scored three goals four minutes apart in the second period to take a 3-0 lead on their way to a 5-2 win. Vrana skated four shifts in the first period, three in the second, and only two in the third, those two coming in the last two minutes of the contest, what one might call “garbage time.” He recorded no shots on goal in 7:40 of ice time and did not have a mark anywhere else on his line of the score sheet, save for a minus-1. Five days later he was reassigned to the Hershey Bears, where he finished his season.
Postseason: did not play
In the end…
Check it off the list. Drafted 13th overall in 2014, played in Europe in 2014-2015, a short stint in Hershey to wrap up the 2004-2015 season, a season in Hershey in 2015-2016, and a couple of cups o’ coffee with the big club in 2016-2017 between stretches in Hershey. One would expect he would challenge for a roster spot this September when the club convenes for the 2017-2018 season. But his last stretch in Hershey was not as smooth or productive as one might have hoped. Upon his final return, he was 5-5-10, plus-5, in 13 games, which isn’t bad. But the playoffs were another matter. In seven games, Vrana was held without a point on just three shots on goal and was a minus-2. It adds a bit of drama to what remains of Vrana’s path to the NHL. It will be interesting to see what he does with this bit of experience.
Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images North America