Sunday, September 15, 2019

Washington Capitals 2019-2020 Previews -- Forwards: Jakub Vrana

Jakub Vrana

“Ambition is the path to success. Persistence is the vehicle you arrive in.”
-- Bill Bradley

If you look at the last three seasons and the players who skated their first three NHL seasons over them, Jakub Vrana’s place among goal scorers is not impressive.  In 176 games over those three seasons he has 40 goals, tied for 28th in this cohort with the New York Islanders’ Mathew Barzal.  His goals per game is not a lot better, at 0.23 goals per game ranking 26th in this group.  

However, it is not so much the total as the progress for Vrana that is more impressive.  In his first three seasons he has gone from three goals in 21 games to 13 goals in 73 games to 24 goals in 82 games last season.  That progress resembles, if not in totals then in magnitude, similar progress in his first three seasons by a Capital that we think Vrana resembles – Peter Bondra.  In his first three seasons with the Caps, Bondra went from 12 goals in 54 games his rookie season in 1990-1991 to 28 goals in 71 games to 37 goals in 83 games (1992-1993 was an 84-game season).

Vrana tended to get points in bunches last season.  He recorded at least one point in 37 games.  Nine times he recorded points in at least two consecutive games, three times getting points in three consecutive games, accounting for 21 of the 37 games.  But he did have an odd thing about his goal scoring.  Only 17 players in the league recorded multi-goal games in two or more losses.  Vrana was one of them.  In fact, the Caps lost two of the three games in which he had two goals, both times on the road 

Odd Vrana Fact…

Jakub Vrana is the only player in franchise history to record three or more goals in his first season in the NHL and have all of them be power play goals.  He was three-for-three in power play goals/total goals in 2016-2017.

Bonus Odd Vrana Fact…

Jakub Vrana was one of nine players in the league last season to take a single shootout shot, score a single shootout goal, and have that be the game-deciding goal.  He is the only player in team history to have taken one career shootout shot, score, and have it be the game-deciding goal.  It took place on December 14, 2018, in a 6-5 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.

Fearless’ Take…

In the post-2004-2005 lockout era, three Capitals totaled at least 40 goals in their first three seasons: Alex Ovechkin (163), Nicklas Backstrom (69), and Jakub Vrana (40).  That is not bad company.  What might give fans the best sense of optimism about Vrana is the leap he took in shooting efficiency in his third season.  After seasons of 9.4 percent (on 3-of-32 shooting in 21 games his first season) and 9.8 percent (13-of-133 in 73 games), he finished at 14.9 percent last season.  It was not a case of being finicky with shot selection, either.  His 1.96 shots per game last season was actually up slightly from the previous season (1.82 per game).

Cheerless’ Take…

Jakub Vrana was dead last among Capitals skaters in shorthanded ice time logged last season.  Even Alex Ovechkin had more – 37 seconds to 30 for Vrana (yeah, those are totals, not per game).  No player having appeared in a dozen or more games over the last three seasons has had less shorthanded ice time (46 seconds).

Potential Milestones:
  • 200 career NHL games (176; he needs 24)
  • 100 career NHL points (80; he needs 20)
  • Top 50 in franchise history in goals scored (40; he needs 20, unless Tom Wilson (57) and/or Lars Eller (43) get there first)

The Big Question… Is Jakub Vrana ready to take his place among the “snipers” in Capitals history?

Acknowledging that this depends on how one defines “sniper,” this would be a prolific goal scorer whose goal totals are greater than his assist totals over time, and do so with efficiency.  In that regard, we would not include Alex Ovechkin, despite his being the top goal scorer of his era and having more goals (658) than assists (553).  At 12.6 percent shooting, he is efficient, but relies more on shot volumes to accumulate goals.  For our purposes, the population for comparison is Mike Gartner (397 goals/392 assists/14.0 percent shooting), Peter Bondra (472/353/14.3), and Alexander Semin (three of six full seasons with goals higher than assists and 14.1 percent shooting).

Vrana has 40 goals and 40 assists on 12.3 percent career shooting, but he was at 14.9 percent last season.  Given his progress it is reasonable to ask if this season, at age 23, he can challenge or surpass the 30-goal mark and whether this will become a standard of his performance for years to come.  It is hard to compare eras, but Bondra did not pass 30 goals until his age 24 year (his third in the NHL), while Gartner was a 30-goal scorer out of the gate (by he did have a pro season in the World Hockey Association before joining the Caps).  Semin passed 30 goals in his first full season with the club, but he did it only twice more in five more seasons with the Caps and totaled only 41 goals in four seasons after leaving Washington.  The point here is that while 30 goals might be a standard, it can be hard to sustain, especially in the contemporary era.

What works against Vrana in this regard is that he does not, and is unlikely to get much power play time in the “right-handed” Capitals power play scheme that sets things up on the right side of the formation, largely with the aim of feeding right-handed shooting Alex Ovechkin on the left side for one-timers.  However, Vrana’s goal scoring progress has been impressive, and he is one of only five Capitals since 2005-2006 to record at least the 23 even strength goals he had last season (Ovechkin (12 times), Semin (twice), T.J. Oshie, and Mike Knuble are the others).  He can challenge that 30-goal mark, but he might need some help (more power play ice time) and/or luck to get there.

In the end…

Jakub Vrana is among the most gifted creators in the offensive end in memory.  His combination of speed, shooting ability, and opportunism calls to mind, in our opinion, Peter Bondra from years past with this franchise.  That is not to say Vrana has 50-goal seasons or a 400-plus goal career with the Caps ahead of him.  This is a different era from that in which Bondra played, and Bondra was the go-to goal scorer on his squads, a role Vrana will not occupy as long as Alex Ovechkin is a Capital.  But to the extent he can provide that next level threat, he will be an extremely valuable asset on a club where scoring balance could be an important ingredient to the team’s success this season and for seasons to come.  As much will depend on his persistence in reaching that level as if does his talent.

Projection: 82 games, 28-28-56, plus-16

Photo: Harry How/Getty Images North America