Thursday, September 13, 2018

Washington Capitals 2018-2019 Previews -- Forwards: Jakub Vrana

Jakub Vrana

“An acre of performance is worth a whole world of promise.”
-- Arnold “Red” Auerbach

It might be that when the Washington Capitals drafted Jakub Vrana with the 13th overall pick of the 2014 NHL entry draft, they drafted their first true sniper since they drafted Peter Bondra in 1990.  Different eras, different circumstances, but there are similarities.  Both came up through European hockey in the run-up to their draft years.  Bondra played four years with VSZ Kosice in what was then Czechoslovakia and averaged 0.56 goals per game over 161 regular season games.  Vrana played for a multitude of teams in European league and international play, averaging 0.55 goals per game in 392 games before he was drafted by the Caps.  Bondra was almost a fixture in the Caps lineup in the year following his draft, scoring 12 goals in 54 games as a rookie in 1990-1991.  Vrana followed what is a conventional path for contemporary European players, playing another year in Europe before joining the Hershey Bears for 36 games in the 2015-2016 season.

Bondra became the greatest goal scorer in Caps history (472 goals with Washington) until Alex Ovechkin surpassed him in the 2014-2015 season.  Many years must pass before a verdict is rendered on whether Vrana can be mentioned among the franchise’s greatest goal scorers.  He had a beginning that gave a hint of what was possible.  In only 21 games in his first season he recorded three power play goals, tied for sixth-best on the team.   He followed that up with a 13-goal season in 2017-2018, tied for 17th among all NHL rookies.  Only three rookies had more postseason goals than Vrana (three): Boston’s  Jake DeBrusk and Vegas’ Alex Tuch with six apiece, and San Jose’s Marcus Sorensen with four.

To put Vrana’s brief career to date in some context, he is one of five Capitals since 2005-2006 who, having only reached his 21st birthday, averaged at least 0.15 goals per game over his first two seasons while appearing in at least 50 games.  The other four are among the most talented offensive players in this generation of Capitals.  And of course, it was his goal that got the Caps started in their Cup-clinching win over the Vegas Golden Knights:

Odd Vrana Fact…

Jakub Vrana was only the fourth rookie in team history to play in the postseason who was a native of the Czech Republic and the first since Jaroslav Svejkovsky in 1998.

Fearless’ Take…

The Capitals have taken their time in bringing Jakub Vrana along.  Even though he was the 13th overall pick of the 2014 entry draft, he is 23rd in NHL regular season games played (94), tied for 22nd in goals (16), and 25th in points.  Some might find that a bit disappointing, but that 2014 draft class was rather talented, what with the likes of Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, David Pastrnak, Leon Draisaitl, Dyaln Larkin, and William Nylander.  When it mattered last season, Vrana was a contributor.  He tied for fourth among all rookies in postseason goals (three), two of which were game-winners (tied with Vegas’ Alex Tuch for first among rookies).

Cheerless’ Take…

For a “sniper,” he seems a bit scattershot.  His shooting percentage in 73 games in 2017-2018 (9.8 percent) was just a bit above his percentage in 21 games in 2016-2017 (9.4).  And this despite not being shy about shooting.  He was sixth on the club in shots on goal (133) and in shots per game (1.82; minimum: 25 games).  And the Caps were 11-1-1 in games in which he skated less than ten minutes.  What’s up with that?  It might be a picky point, but being under 50 percent in shot attempts-for percentage at 5-on-5 in tied (45.45) and close situations (49.71) look to be areas in which he could stand some improvement.

Potential Milestones:
  • 100 career games (he needs six)
  • 50 career points (he needs 17)

The Big Question… Can Jakub Vrana “Go Bondra” in 2018-2019?

In Peter Bondra’s second full season with the Caps, his goals scored improved from 12 in 54 games to 28 in 71 games.  Different era, different circumstances, but how Jakub Vrana progresses in what will be his second full season (and third in the NHL) will be one of the subplots worth watching as the season unfolds.  Bondra’s goals per game improved by 77 percent from his first to second full season.  A similar improvement for Vrana would lift him to 0.32 goals per game this season.  If he was to play 75 games, that would result in a 24-goal season.  That might be a bit too high a climb to make if he is getting third line minutes on the left wing and little power play time.  The flip side of this is that if he improves his shooting efficient with a comparable number of shots on goal, say, from 9.8 to 12.8 percent (keep in mind, eight Caps forwards playing in at least 50 games last year had higher percentages), he would be a 17-goal scorer.  If he could increase his shooting frequency to 2.0 shots per game with that efficiency, he would be pushing 20 goals.  These are elements of the maturation process one might look at in the development of a young player.

In the end…

Snipers in the NHL are, by their nature, opportunistic.  Jakub Vrana fills that bill so far.  He has four power play goals and four game-winning goals among his 16 career goals thus far.  Nine of the 12 regular season games in which he scored a goal last season ended in Caps wins.  He has shown no particular preference for home or road games, scoring eight of his 16 total career goals in each category. 

To return to comparisons with Peter Bondra, beginning with his second full season through 2002-2003, Bondra went 12-for-12 in seasons with more than 20 goals.  No other Capital over that span had more than three such seasons, and only Dmitri Khristich and Mike Ridley are in that group.  Vrana does not have the burden of being the go-to goal scorer with this club that Peter Bondra was over his career with the Caps.  That responsibility falls to Alex Ovechkin for the time being.  But as he enters his second full season, it is not unreasonable that in the normal course of development we see more evidence of the goal-scorer that Vrana can become.  His power play ice time might be a large factor on whether he can top the 20-goal mark (he averaged 40 seconds of power play time per game last season), but he should challenge that threshold to cultivate the seeds of performance in his acre of the NHL.

Projection: 77 games, 18-18-36, plus-5

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images North America