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For Caps winger Jakub Vrana, a glimpse of vast potential as a new contract looms

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For Caps winger Jakub Vrana, a glimpse of vast potential as a new contract looms

The breakthrough season has come and gone and now the waiting game begins for Jakub Vrana.  

The Capitals need young talent to make a leap if they’re going to prop open the championship window they hope still has a few years left yet. Vrana scored a career-high 24 goals this season and spent most of it on the second line at left wing. The 2014 first-round pick is living up to that choice. But as a restricted free agent, his contract status needs to be clarified this summer. For now, that remains up in the air as Vrana enters his third NHL season.  

“I’m going to talk to my agent and like I said I’m going to talk to Washington,” Vrana said last month. “We’re going to discuss what’s going to happen over the summer and prepare for next season. So we will see.”

There are multiple avenues to pursue. Vrana could sign a long-term deal like teammates Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitry Orlov have done recently. Vrana has four years to go as a restricted free agent. Kuznetsov signed the maximum eight-year contract. Wilson went with six. Orlov agreed to five. 

Kuznetsov, Wilson and Orlov were all two years away from unrestricted free agency when they signed. Vrana could do a two-year bridge deal to get a nice raise off his three-year entry-level contract. Or he could choose to go for four years to maximize his free agent earnings at a younger age. Or the two sides could lock in a deal as long as eight years that would take Vrana until he is 31. 

Those calculations involve what Vrana thinks he can do in Washington the next few years. He had 24 goals and 23 assists (47 points) in his age 22/23 season. He is blocked from the top power play for now because of the talent in front of him, but he is guaranteed to play on a line with either Kuznetsov or Nicklas Backstrom as his center. Imagine what Vrana could get two years from now if he pushes closer to the 30-goal range or above? It’s not that big a jump now.  

“We’ll have some decisions to make,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We’ll find out which direction we’re going on Vrana with a term deal or a bridge deal. Some of it is money decisions. Some of it’s we need to make a couple changes.”

Vrana’s last month of hockey shows the risk and the reward. He didn’t produce in the Stanley Cup playoffs going without a point in the seven-game first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes. That was disappointing. 

“Yeah it’s a hard one. I don’t know that we have an answer to it,” MacLellan said. “We missed that energy, that speed and the goal scoring in the playoffs for sure.”

Vrana admitted he was injured during the playoffs, but not so bad that he couldn’t play. He was repeatedly seen in the locker room walking around with an ice bag on his shoulder. But after a few weeks off, he has made an immediate impact for the Czech Republic at the IIHF World Championships in Slovakia. 

Vrana scored two goals on Friday against Sweden, including a beautiful snipe reminiscent of his goal in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Vrana added an assist on Saturday in a 7-2 win over Norway. 

As a rookie, Vrana had three goals and five assists in 23 Stanley Cup playoff games. He is one of just 23 players in the NHL who began this past season age 22 or younger who had 24 goals. He is one of 34 players that age or younger with 47 points. That’s pretty good company. But there’s room to grow.  

Vrana’s playoff no-show is concerning and the Capitals are again in a salary-cap crunch, but both sides expect to work out some kind of deal. The question is whether Vrana wants to bet on himself or take the long-term security now. Either way, Washington needs him to take another step forward in 2019-20 as its top players like Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie pass well into their 30s. That Stanley Cup window stays open a little longer if Vrana can pull it off.  

“During the regular season, it’s a good experience for me,” Vrana said. “Another year in the NHL with this group of guys. It’s unbelievable. Still hopeful for me. I’m looking forward for next season.”

 

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Alex Ovechkin's workout was adorably interrupted with a dance party from his son, Sergei

Alex Ovechkin's workout was adorably interrupted with a dance party from his son, Sergei

Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin was enjoying a morning workout in his house on Wednesday when a small distraction entered the room.

Enter Ovechkin's one-year-old son, Sergei.

Instead of the Capitals winger shooing off his son to finish his workout, the two engaged in a dance party. It was quite precious.

With the song '40 Gradusov' by Loboda playing in the background, Ovechkin picked up his son, and the two started swaying side to side, dancing to the tune. Ovechkin's wife, Nastya, captured it all on camera, posting it to her Instagram story.

The elder Ovechkin has been spending plenty of his unexpected free time with Sergei, as the coronavirus pandemic has paused the NHL season indefinitely. The two teamed up for a Capitals simulated game on NHL 20 earlier this week, and they even watched film together, too.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What does Washington's salary cap situation look like for next season?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: What does Washington's salary cap situation look like for next season?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? You can submit your questions here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Joe Collins writes: I know it may be a bit too early for this question, but has there been any discussion on any possible compensation for teams that traded draft picks for players who were on expiring contracts in the event the season gets canceled? If the season were to not be completed the Caps would've traded a 2nd and 3rd rounder for 10 games with Brenden Dillon and another 3rd rounder for seven games with Ilya Kovalchuk. I am sure many other teams are in similar, if not worse, positions. Any thoughts on how these teams should/may be compensated?

It does seem early to talk about this as the season has not been canceled and it is only April 1, but I'll play along.

This will be an unpopular opinion, but I don't think any team that made trades for rentals without conditions should be entitled to any compensation. I understand that these are extenuating circumstances, but the Caps would not have been entitled to any compensation had the season gone on as normal and they missed the playoffs so why should they be entitled to anything now? Or how about if they got injured and they weren't able to play? Teams would not be entitled to anything in that situation either. The fact that you might not have them for very long is the risk you run with rental players. When teams trade for players on expiring contracts, they are hopeful they will get a long postseason run out of them, but you do it with the understanding that you could potentially only get those players for a handful of games.

To me, a much bigger issue will be what to do with trades that had conditions attached, like when draft picks are tied into how far a team goes into the postseason. When you have agreed on conditions based on the traditional season and postseason format and that changes, those are circumstances which I do feel a team would be entitled to some form of compensation. I don't know exactly what that would look like as I don't know how the season will be formatted when it returns, but compensatory draft picks would make the most sense to me. That way a team that promised to give away a draft pick doesn't have to based on whatever the postseason looks like and teams still get to recoup picks. Sure, that may mean more draft picks in, let's face it, what is already a heavily diluted draft, but the coronavirus has affected how teams scout the end of the season, taking away scouting trips and with minor junior and college leagues canceling their postseason. Add some compensatory picks so teams can take a shot at players they may not have scouted as much as they would like.

Jack Ryan writes: If the season doesn’t get canceled, wouldn’t all UFA’s be available to sign come July 1?

That is among the many logistical issues with a delayed season, but the league is aware of it. In a conference call Monday, Brian MacLellan said the league had discussed player contracts being extended to August this year if the league returns and plays into the summer. The NHLPA would have to approve that, but considering the revenue at stake, there is no reason why it wouldn't.

The league has a lot of very good lawyers to worry about these kinds of things. There is no scenario where a plan is in place, the league starts up and then oops! No one figured out that player contracts expire before the playoffs are supposed to end. What a pickle! I am sure there are minor things that may slip through the cracks, but something as significant as player contracts will be sorted out before the puck drops again.

Bill Bridge writes: Assuming the cap stays where it is and Braden Holtby is gone, the Caps would be in good shape. They'd have enough room to field basically the same group of forwards minus Kovalchuk, sign a vet goalie to back up Ilya Samsonov and even re-sign Brenden Dillon to a $3.5-$4 million contract if they wanted to go that route. Thoughts?

Not including restricted free agents, the Caps have 11 forwards, four defensemen and one goalie under contract for next season. If the salary cap stays the same -- which would be my guess, I can't see it going up at this point and I don't think either the NHL or NHLPA wants it to go down -- Washington would have about $10.4 million to work with to sign a high-end backup/tandem goalie to go with Samsonov, sign a third-line winger (because Richard Panik certainly looks like a fourth-line player at this point), give Jonas Siegenthaler a raise and sign one or two additional defensemen (only one if Martin Fehervary is ready to step in). Even with Holtby off the books, things are going to get tight very quickly.

I think Brian MacLellan has done a masterful job with this roster and he has been as good a general manager as anyone during his tenure, but the fact he has given out a lot of long-term deals for veterans with the thought that those cap hits would look better with each passing year with the cap continuing to steadily rise. When the cap stays in place, that has major ramifications not just for next year but for how this team has projected its cap out over the next few years. That is hugely important considering Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana's current contracts expire at the end of the 2020-21 season.

I think it makes sense to try to re-sign Dillon if they can, but I think he could probably get more on the open market and signing him is not just about getting his contract to fit in next year, it's about getting it to fit beyond next season with Ovechkin and Vrana re-signed. Ovechkin's cap hit will probably be about the same, but Vrana has clearly earned himself a gigantic raise.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, you can submit it here at the Capitals Mailbag submissions page on NBCSportsWashington.com.

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