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Caps sign Jakub Vrana to a 2-year bridge deal with an eye on the future

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Caps sign Jakub Vrana to a 2-year bridge deal with an eye on the future

One of the biggest items on the Capitals’ offseason to-do list is now finally done as the team signed winger Jakub Vrana to a two-year bridge deal worth $6.7 million. The deal carries with it a cap hit of $3.35 million per year.

Vrana enjoyed his best NHL season in 2018-19 with 24 goals, 23 assists and 47 points, all career-highs. He cemented himself as a top-six forward in the 2018 playoff run and did not relinquish that role in Todd Reirden’s first season as head coach.

“Jakub is a highly skilled player with a tremendous upside and is a big part of our future,” general manager Brian MacLellan in a statement released by the team. “We are pleased with his development the past two seasons and are looking forward for him to continue to develop and reach his full potential with our organization.”

The only disappointment for Vrana this season came in the playoffs when he was held to zero points in seven games. When asked at the team’s breakdown day if he was dealing with an injury, he said that he was, but would not confirm the nature or severity of the injury.

Though negotiations stretched into mid-July it was always a foregone conclusion that Vrana would return. He was a restricted free agent with no arbitration rights, meaning he had little bargaining power. Seeing Sebastian Aho receive a rare offer sheet raised the specter of a similar possibility for Vrana, but in the end, the deal got done and Washington will return what will likely be a key piece of its offense for years to come.

Though many would have liked to see the 23-year-old forward get locked up long-term given his skill and work ethic, a bridge deal was always likely. Signing an RFA long-term means buying UFA years which ups the value of the contract. Without much money under the cap, even if MacLellan wanted to get a long-term deal done the team simply did not have the cap room to do it.

Vrana will still be an RFA at the end of his new contract, but he will have arbitration rights at that point. His contract will also expire the same year as Alex Ovechkin’s and one year after Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby’s. By then the future for all three within the organization should be determined, leaving MacLellan free to negotiate with Vrana without the possibility of major contracts for the team’s stars looming over him. When it comes time for Vrana to sign a new deal, MacLellan should have a better idea of how much money he has to work with for a future deal.

With Vrana now in the fold, the Caps currently have less than $1 million remaining in cap space with restricted free agents Christian Djoos and Chandler Stephenson still left to sign. Washington retained the rights of both players by issuing them qualifying offers and both have filed for arbitration.

Djoos would be the team’s seventh defenseman so it seems likely he will be on the roster at the start of the season. The future seems less clear for Stephenson. Teams are allowed to exceed the salary cap ceiling by a small amount until the start of the new season so it certainly seems as if we are headed for a fourth-line competition in training camp.

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International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

International suspension over cocaine a wake-up call for Caps' Kuznetsov

The Capitals have a problem. 

With a rapidly closing championship window, coming off a first-round Stanley Cup playoff loss, there is pressure to take advantage while Alex Ovechkin remains at the top of his game and Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are still under contract. 

No player was going to be watched more closely this upcoming season than center Evgeny Kuznetsov after an up-and-down campaign that left many in the organization frustrated. 

That takes on an ominous note after Kuznetsov was suspended four years by the International Ice Hockey Federation after testing positive for cocaine at the World Championships in May while playing for Russia.

Kuznetsov set the bar so high during the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup playoff run. He is a brilliant talent who arguably was the best player in the world during that two-month stretch. Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Kuznetsov easily could have. 

But things have gone sideways this summer. Kuznetsov and Russia won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Slovakia on May 26. One day later a video surfaced on Twitter showing Kuznetsov in a room where cocaine was clearly visible on a desk. He publically denied ever doing drugs. That was unwise. 

According to the IIHF timeline, Kuznetsov had already taken a drug test that he would fail. The date? May 26 when Russia beat the Czech Republic in the bronze-medal game. He was provisionally suspended by the IIHF on June 13 and that was confirmed on Friday. He’ll at some point have to explain why he bothered lying about it at all, but in the end, that’s just a PR embarrassment of his own creation.

The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement seeks to direct players into treatment for what it labels “drugs of abuse” and not punishment. That’s admirable. But when a player’s performance nosedives and he later fails a drug test, it’s fair to ask how intertwined they are. 

This isn’t marijuana, often used by professional athletes to ease pain or just relax. Cocaine still has a stigma attached to it. In recent years the NHL has acknowledged its increased use by players. 

To his credit, Kuznetsov is taking advantage of the treatment programs offered by the NHLPA and has agreed to increased testing. He has been in Washington for weeks, much earlier than normal for European players, and is taking part in informal workouts at the Capitals’ headquarters in Arlington. 

These are all good signs. We don’t know with absolute certainty why Kuznetsov used cocaine or how often he does or even if it negatively affected his play. It would be naïve to think he’s the only Capitals player dealing with this issue and it’s not about shaming drug use. This is serious stuff. But for Kuznetsov, it goes with a broader narrative: A gifted player who doesn’t always live up to the heavy expectations placed upon him.   

His own general manager, Brian MacLellan, has acknowledged that on the record multiple times. Expecting Kuznetsov to match his 2018 playoff form for an entire season would be crazy. Few can do that. But his own teammates will privately say there is more to give, that they NEED Kuznetsov at his best for longer stretches. If they hadn’t seen it from him for months at a time before, it wouldn’t be so frustrating.   

Kuznetsov said in the aftermath of the video release, which was taken in Las Vegas last December on a Capitals’ road trip there, that he made an error in judgment visiting some acquaintances in a hotel room and when he saw cocaine use going on, he left. 

The video isn’t that definitive. Kuznetsov is seen laughing and joking with an unidentified person on a video call. Rolled up dollar bills are in front of him with a white powder substance visible. He doesn’t exactly seem uptight or in a hurry to leave. 

Fast forward five months and you have the failed drug test to go with the video. One with real-world consequences. The NHL might not punish players for cocaine use, but Kuznetsov won’t be allowed to play for Russia for the balance of his prime. He just punted that away. If the NHL and the NHLPA come to an agreement about letting players participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Kuznetsov will not be there. That’s a devastating penalty. 

Kuznetsov is still just 27, the vanguard of the younger Caps like Tom Wilson, 25, and Jakub Vrana, 23, who all must shoulder a bigger load with Ovechkin turning 34 next month and Backstrom turning 32 in November. Those two were great in the playoffs against Carolina last spring and the Capitals wasted the effort. They know they wasted it. 

Washington can’t win another Cup without Kuznetsov playing close to the breathtaking level he found in 2018. But watch heads droop on the bench when he makes an awful drop pass just inside the blue line or gives up a great scoring chance simply because his intuitive hockey mind sees an even better one available. He is literally the worst player in the NHL regularly allowed to take faceoffs and it isn’t close. 

It speaks to a lack of concern about the details of the game, a lack of seriousness. Lose a face-off and we’ll just “get the puck back in two seconds,” Kuznetsov told the Washington Post in a feature story in February. 

Remember Kuznetsov’s infamous quote last October about not caring if he was ever in contention for a Hart Trophy? “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”

From a player coming off an incredible postseason you let that slide. It isn’t quite what he meant and Kuznetsov is renowned for saying whatever the hell he wants. He’s a fascinating character, never boring, unselfish to a fault. Talk to him for any length of time and you get unique insights into the game. 

But a drug suspension, even if it isn’t at the NHL level, undermines all of that. Misleading the organization about it does, too, especially when you know the truth is probably coming out. It’s all a little reckless. These people need to know they can count on you. That’s the price of being a great player, that’s the cost of immense talent. Kuznetsov let them down. He let himself down. This coming season is now about making amends. 

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Evgeny Kuznetsov accepts IIHF suspension for cocaine while Capitals, NHL lay out next steps

Evgeny Kuznetsov accepts IIHF suspension for cocaine while Capitals, NHL lay out next steps

After news broke of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s four-year suspension by the IIHF for testing positive for cocaine, the Capitals center released a statement Friday accepting the suspension and expressing his regret for the situation 

Said Kuznetsov:

"Recently, the IIHF notified me that, due to a positive test for a banned substance, I would be suspended from international competition for four years. I have made the decision to accept this penalty. Representing my country has always been so close to my heart and something I take so much pride in. Not being able to put that sweater on for four years is very hard to take. I have disappointed so many people that are important to me, including my family, teammates and friends. From the first day I took the ice in D.C., the Washington Capitals organization and our fans have been nothing but great to me and my family. I feel absolutely terrible for letting you down. I realize that the only way I can win you back is to take ownership of my situation and my actions from this point forward."

The question now is what happens next?

Both the Capitals and NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly also released statements on Friday saying that Kuznetsov “has voluntarily sought help through the education and counseling program provided for in the NHL/NHLPA collective bargaining agreement and has agreed to a regular testing protocol relating to his involvement with that program.”

In addition, Kuznetsov will meet with commissioner Gary Bettman “to discuss his situation and review his conduct prior to the start of Training Camp preceding the 2019-20 season.”

While the positive test has resulted in a four-year suspension with the IIHF, it is unclear if any such discipline will be levied on Kuznetsov by the NHL.

Said Daly, “Unlike the IIHF, cocaine is not considered a performance-enhancing drug and is therefore not a Prohibited Substance under the NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program.  Instead, it is considered a drug of abuse that is tested for and for which intervention, evaluation and mandatory treatment can occur in appropriate cases.”

Daly left the door open for NHL discipline as he concluded, “We intend to reserve further comment on any additional actions that may or may not be taken with respect to today’s announcement (disciplinary or otherwise) pending the completion of the Commissioner’s meeting with Mr. Kuznetsov.”

The Capitals, meanwhile, expressed support for Kuznetsov saying “we are committed to ensuring he has the necessary support required to work through this situation.”

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