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The Capitals' entire offseason plan may hinge on what happens with Jakub Vrana

The Capitals' entire offseason plan may hinge on what happens with Jakub Vrana

ARLINGTON, Va. – When it comes to the multiple offseason decisions general manager Brian MacLellan has to make, the most important one won’t be whether to re-sign Nicklas Backstrom and/or Braden Holtby, it won’t be whether to bring back Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly or Carl Hagelin. The most important decision MacLellan will make, the player on which everything else the team does this season will be based, will actually be Jakub Vrana.

Vrana, 23, is coming off a career year in which he scored 24 goals and 23 assists, both career highs. He took on a top-six role for much of the season in Washington and is still a few years out from reaching his peak as a player.

He is also a restricted free agent and in need of a raise.

Vrana’s cap hit was a paltry $863,333 last season. He will be due much more than that in his next contract. The question is how much?

When talking about how much roster turnovers he expects next season, MacLellan said, “We’ll have some decisions to make. We’ll find out which direction we’re going on Vrana with a term deal or a bridge deal. Some of it’s money decisions. Some of it’s we need to make a couple changes.”

Notice there was only one player MacLellan named specifically.

The Caps’ salary cap situation this offseason is rather bleak. According to CapFriendly, as of now Washington has eight forwards, six defensemen and two goalies under contract for next season for a total cap hit of $72.9 million, just over $10 million under the expected salary cap ceiling of $83 million. That gives the team just $10 million to sign five more forwards (four lines of three plus one extra) and one defenseman.

There is no question Vrana will be one of those five forwards. Twenty-goal scorers can be hard to find and for a player to do that at 23 means he has the potential to be something special. Given his talent, his production and the fact that the team still maintains his rights as an RFA, there is no reason to think a deal does not get done.

But how much of that $10 million of cap space will Vrana take?

MacLellan has shown in the past that he is not shy about giving long-term contracts to important players. Long-term contracts are a risk, but for younger players it delays unrestricted free agency for a few years while also (hopefully) making the contract more team friendly with each passing season. That is the philosophy behind deals like Evgeny Kuznetsov ($7.8 million cap hit), Tom Wilson (approximately $5.17 million cap hit) and Dmitry Orlov ($5.1 million cap hit).

That, however, may not work in this case.

While these deals are meant to save the team money in the long-run, in the short-term it means a larger cap hit because the team is essentially buying UFA years. Essentially it would mean giving Vrana a higher cap hit than he may be worth now in the hopes that he will be worth more than that cap hit in a few years.

Washington, however, needs to make every dollar count this offseason which will likely mean giving Vrana a bridge deal instead.

A bridge deal is a short-term deal with a modest raise. The benefit of this to the player is that these contracts expire right as the player is entering his prime allowing him to cash-in on a major deal. Bridge deals save teams money in the short-term, but it could cost them big in the long-run.

Given its cap situation, however, the Caps may have no choice but to give Vrana a bridge deal. That will likely mean giving him a cap hit somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million.

As of Friday at the team’s locker cleanout, Vrana said he had not yet heard anything from the team.

“The season just ended so I really haven’t think about that,” he said. “I didn’t talk to anybody yet so we will see what they going to say and my agent what he’s going to say.”

When those conversations do happen, whatever the number the two sides agree upon, it will determine how much money the team has left for…well, everyone else.

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How Jakub Vrana could be game changer for Caps over next two seasons

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How Jakub Vrana could be game changer for Caps over next two seasons

The Capitals took care of their last major order of business this summer by signing restricted free agent Jakub Vrana to a two-year contract extension. 

The deal: Two years, $6.7 million with a salary-cap hit of $3.35 million. That’s not bad for an RFA who posted 24 goals in his age 22/23 season.

Washington now has 13 forwards under contract and six defensemen plus both goalies. According to the invaluable web site CapFriendly.com, that leaves salary-cap space of $935,706. That's tight. 

The Capitals need to add one more depth defenseman to get to seven. Christian Djoos received a qualifying offer of $715,000, but as an RFA himself elected to go to arbitration. That hearing is July 22. Chandler Stephenson, another RFA, also chose arbitration. The forward has his hearing on Aug. 1. There might be room only for Djoos unless another move is made. 

During his age 22/23 season, Vrana broke through with a career-high in goals (24) and points (47) and established himself as a legitimate top-six forward on an aging team that needs its young talent to produce if it wants to continue as a Stanley Cup contender.

With captain Alex Ovechkin, 33, center Nicklas Backstrom, 31, and right wing T.J. Oshie, 32, in the top six, Washington has kept a good mix with Vrana, 23, Tom Wilson, 25, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, 27, all still in their 20s. Vrana, especially, plays at a speed few others on the roster other than Carl Hagelin can match.  

Since the 2010-11 season, a player who began a season 22 or younger scored 24 goals just 95 times. The list of 55 players who accomplished that feat is littered with stars (Connor McDavid, Nathan McKinnon, Patrick Kane, Taylor Hall) or young phenoms (Sebastian Aho, Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel) and there are very few one-hit wonders or busts on that list. 

At worst, those players have provided steady production for several seasons. The Capitals are hoping for a lot more from Vrana, who scored his 24 goals and got his 47 points with limited power-play time (93:28) on the second unit. 

That might not change much this year, but it’s intriguing to think what Vrana could do if injuries strike and he’s moved up. He was on the ice for 59 goals at even strength and just 37 against, which was the best differential among all Capitals forwards last season.   

The two-year bridge contract is no real surprise. The Capitals took the same tact in 2017 with Andre Burakovsky, their 2013 first-round draft pick. But Burakovsky, while he scored some huge goals in the Stanley Cup playoffs, struggled to maintain consistency in his game and never had a year like Vrana’s 2018-19. He was traded to Colorado last month in part because of the salary-cap crunch and he just drove coaches crazy for the better part of five years.

Vrana is in essence betting on himself. If he is able to make another leap and get to that 30-goal mark, he will still be a restricted free agent after the 2020-21 season at age 25, but one with vastly more leverage. He would be arbitration eligible. He was not eligible this summer. He would be in line for a big payday on a long-term deal from Washington - or would have just two years left before unrestricted free agency after the 2022-23 season.

A similar RFA case happened with the Toronto Maple Leafs and forward Kasperi Kapanen this summer. The Leafs gave their young winger a three-year bridge deal worth $9.6 million and a $3.2 million salary-cap hit. They, too, were facing a tough salary-cap crunch. Kapanen was the 22ndoverall pick in 2014. Vrana was 13ththat same year. Kapanen had 20 goals and 24 assists (44 points) this past season. Vrana gets more power-play time, but Kapanen kills penalties (125:22).    

So Vrana in the end received a little more money than the Kapanen deal and can re-set his contract sooner if he breaks out big. Washington believes that he can and will because Vrana’s skill is undeniable. 

Go back and look at some of his best goals from last season. They often came off the rush when opposing defenders simply couldn’t deal with him or when he snuck behind a defender for a rip off and a scoring chance. He is almost always the last regular on the ice after practice. He’s scored a big goal in a Stanley Cup clincher.

The Capitals now have a balanced top nine with a solid mix of veterans and in-their-prime players. Vrana still has to prove he can build on the promise of last season and his pointless playoff series against Carolina in April, while allowing for a possible shoulder injury, shows his game isn’t a finished product quite yet. 

But Vrana is the one young under-25 forward on the roster – likely in the entire organization – who has the raw talent to become a 30-to-40 goal, 60-to-70 point player. That’s the package the Capitals hoped they were taking in the first round five years ago. Now we will see if Vrana can get there. 

 

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Jakub Vrana's top 5 moments as a Capital so far

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Jakub Vrana's top 5 moments as a Capital so far

Jakub Vrana has made it through his entry-level contract and signed a new deal Tuesday for two-years, $6.7 million.

To celebrate his new bridge deal, we look back at the top 5 moments from Vrana's last three seasons with the squad.

5: Vrana's first goal

Against the Buffalo Sabres on the road, Vrana introduced himself to Capitals fans with a tap-in off an Evgeny Kuznetsov feed to beat Robin Lehner.

It would be the first of 40 goals he's scored in his young Caps career.

4: Pick-pocketing the Flyers

They say the best offense is a good defense, but Vrana didn't have to settle on this goal.

With a nifty poke check at the Caps defensive blue line, Vrana went full blast towards the Philadelphia Flyers defense, beat them, then roofed a shot for his 13th goal of the season.

3: Helping to lift the curse against the Penguins

Vrana scored his first-ever playoff goal against the Penguins during the 2018 Stanley Cup run, but it was his Game 5 dagger that put Caps fans on their feet.

Thanks to a cross-crease feed from Alex Ovechkin, Vrana was able to slot the puck past Matt Murray in the dying minutes for the game-winning goal. The Caps would add two more, going on to win 6-3.

2: Stanley Cup Celebration

It's no secret the boys partied hard after they won the Cup in 2018, and Vrana presented us with one of the greatest moments during the epic celebration. 

This moment with Joe B. will never, ever get old. The party continued at the Stanley Cup parade a couple days later. 

After a solid show along the parade route, Vrana graced us with his stellar dance moves.

1: Game 5 Stanley Cup Final opening goal

Big players come up in big games, and Vrana proved to be one of those players in the Capitals' 2018 Stanley Cup run.

In enemy territory against the Vegas Golden Knights with the Stanley Cup on the line, Vrana powered down the ice and roofed a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for the opening goal of Game 5.

Here's to hoping we see many more big moments in the years to come from Jake the Snake.

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