Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Washington Capitals 2020-2021 Previews -- Forwards: Jakub Vrana

Jakub Vrana

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, 'It will be happier.'”
-- Alfred Lord Tennyson


He was almost there, almost through a “breakthrough” season.  Jakub Vrana announced himself ready to take his place among the NHL’s top goal scorers in 2019-2020 when he potted goals in each of his first two games, including the game-winning goal in overtime on Opening Night, spoiling the banner-raising celebration of the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.  And for the most part, he kept up a healthy goal-scoring pace with 23 goals in 50 games (a 38-goal scoring pace over 82 games).

And then…crickets.

Over his last 19 games of the shortened regular season, Vrana posted only two goals on 45 shots (4.4 percent).  While he did put up ten assists over that span, his stock in trade is goal scoring more than it is playmaking.  And the drought just got worse in the postseason – no goals in eight games on 17 shots.  It extended his postseason streak without a goal to 15 games, his last playoff goal being the Caps’ first goal in their Stanley Cup clinching 4-3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final.  It matters.  The Caps were 16-2-2 in the 20 games in which Vrana recorded at least one goal (he had three two-goal games, and he also had a hat trick).  That is entirely consistent with the relationship of Vrana goals and Caps’ success over his four-year career.  Washington is 41-11-4 in the 56 games Vrana has at least one goal in his career.

The odd part of it all was that Vrana simply was not realizing any success shooting the puck.  He had 142 shots over his first 50 games (2.84 per game) and 45 in his last 19 games (2.37).  The average dropped some, but it was still second to Alex Ovechkin (87) in shots on goal over those final 19 games, just as he was over the first 50 contests.

Odd Vrana Fact… “18” was an important number in Jakub Vrana’s season last year.  While the Caps were 5-1-0 when Vrana skated 17:00-17:59, they were 1-3-1 when he skated 18:00 or more.

Odd Vrana Fact II… While he is not known as a physical player, the Caps were 7-1-0 when Vrana was credited with two or more hits.

Fearless’ Take…

Even with his late season swoon, Vrana improved his goal total and goals per game for a third straight season.  Starting with his first NHL season (three goals/0.14 goals per game), he progressed to 13/0.18 in his second season, 24/0.29 in his third season, and 25/0.36 last season.  And in what might be a perverse sign of maturity, his goal-scoring drop-off did not seem to affect other areas, at least not uniformly.  For instance, while he averaged 2.57 giveaways charged per 60 minutes in his first 50 games, that number dropped to 2.13 per 60 minutes in his last 19 games.  On the other hand, his personal shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 percentage dropped from 51.8 over his first 50 games to 48.9 over his last 19 games, although that was part of a team-wide problem (he ranked ninth among forwards in both groups of games).

Cheerless’ Take…

The hope in the aftermath of the 2019-2020 season and the beginning of the 2020-2021 season is that the 27 games Jakub Vrana played to end last season, regular and postseason, over which he was 2-8-10, minus-12, and those two goals coming on a total of 62 shots (3.2 percent), is a hiccup for a 23-year old player and not a matter of Vrana losing his touch on a more basic level.

Potential Milestones to Reach in 2020-2021:

  • 300 career NHL games (he currently has 245)
  • 150 career NHL points (132)
  • 20 career game-winning goals (14)
  • Top-50 in total points in team history (he needs 25 to pass Robert Picard and Matt Niskanen (both with 156) for 49th place)

The Big Question… Can Jakub Vrana shake of his weak finish last season to break through as an elite goal scorer?

In a short season, this becomes an especially important question to have answered.  The Caps cannot afford to have the player they might be counting on as their number two goal scorer to have a hangover from the end of last season that results in a slow start this season.  Vrana is still a young player (he will turn 24 at the end of next month), but he is also closing in on 250 career games in the NHL.  At this point he has shown he has the innate talent and the necessary skill to be an elite goal scorer, what he now needs to demonstrate is the consistency of performance.  He can be a 35-goal player (on an 82-game basis) or better.  Will he?  The Caps’ success this season might ride on the answer.

In the end…

Having two 30-goal scorers is not a necessary condition for success. Tampa Bay had only Nikita Kucherov reach that level in 2019-2020 (33) on the way to a Stanley Cup.  St. Louis had only Vladimir Tarasenko top that mark in 2018-2019 (33) in 2018-2019 when the Blues won the Cup.  And the Caps had only Alex Ovechkin pass 30 goals (49) when Washington won the Cup in 2017-2018.  Nevertheless, Jakub Vrana’s development as a reliable, consistent goal scorer might be a necessary ingredient to extend the Caps’ competitive window, should Ovechkin’s production slip even slightly, and a 30-goal pace (20 in a 56-game season) is a decent benchmark.

But for his collapse to close the regular season, Vrana would have been a shoo-in to hit 30 goals for the first time in his career.  And his being shut out in that department in the postseason did not help the Caps’ cause.  It makes for a bit more urgency that Vrana “arrives” as a truly dangerous goal scorer to take some of the heat off Alex Ovechkin as the go-to goal scorer, particularly in the postseason, where his three career goals in 38 games on 128 shots (4.7 percent) jumps off the page.  On the threshold of the NHL season to come, fans are hopeful of such an outcome to make everyone happier.

Projection: 56 games, 20-21-41, plus-3

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images