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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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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Did the Caps address all of their weaknesses?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Did the Caps address all of their weaknesses?

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

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

John F. writes: Can Alex Ovechkin break Wayne Gretzky's career goals record? What will it take?

It will take 237 more goals.

OK, but what does that mean exactly? Ovechkin will turn 34 before the start of the season. Let’s say he plays seven more seasons and retires when he is 40. He would have to average 34 goals per year to do that.

That seems doable for Ovechkin, but you have to remember that Father Time is undefeated. At some point the production will decrease. You also have to wonder if he will even play that long. That’s no guarantee. If he does, it would be hard for him to return to Russia to play in the KHL, which many believe he would want to do given his outspoken pride for his home country.

For this to be a realistic possibility, it is going to require at least one more 45-50 goal season and probably another 40 goal season on top of that. He is going to have to get a good chunk of goals this year while he is still productive because eventually he is not going to be able to score 50 goals anymore. Then he won’t be able to score 40, and so on.

I can’t sit here and tell you that it is impossible because Ovechkin keeps redefining what is possible for a goal scorer over 30. Having said that, I still am not willing to say I think he will do it. Considering we all marvel at what he has been able to do the last two seasons and he still sits over 200 goals away, I still have my money on the Great One keeping his record.

Blake B. writes: The Capitals appear to have addressed all of their necessities this offseason (i.e. filling their 3rd and 4th lines, unloading salary and making tough but necessary trades). What are the biggest question marks, uncertainties and holes entering the 2019-2020 season?

There are a few and some of your fellow readers asked about them as well this week. For me, depth offense is a concern. The Caps got only five goals from their bottom-six in seven playoff games against the Carolina Hurricanes. One goal was an empty-netter, one was a penalty shot and the remaining three came from Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, who are both gone. Offensively, the team did not get better, so where are those goals going to come from? More on this later.

Players like Connolly and Burakovsky provided injury insurance. Both players could plug into the top-six in case of injury. Hagelin and Panik now look like those players, but both look like offensive downgrades in that respect.

On defense, the team looks pretty set assuming Nick Jensen can handle a top-four role. I wrote about this as part of our “Burning Questions" series we are currently running. The team’s defense truly hinges on Jensen. If he plays well, you have a clear top-four with an upgraded bottom pair thanks to the acquisition of Gudas. If Jensen does not play well, you have a major hole on the blue line and no clear candidate to fill it, plus a defenseman with three more years on his contract after this season.

And then there is the power play. Brian MacLellan focused on defense in the offseason, so the team should be improved in that area and on the penalty kill. The sacrifice was losing some offensive depth, but you can potentially make that up if the team rebounds on the power play. More on this later too.

Ben C. writes: Our bottom-six seems to be better defensively now. How do you think they will contribute offensively?

I also wrote about this very subject for our “Burning Questions” series. Hagelin is a very versatile player, but offense is not his strong suit. He managed only five goals and 19 total points last season. He has never scored 20 goals in any season of his career and has reached 30 points only once in the past five years. Eller has tallied 38 and 36 points in each of the past two seasons, the best two seasons of his career. But, like Hagelin, he has never scored 20 goals at any point in his career. Panik scored 20 goals only once in 2016-17 when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks and playing on a line with Jonathan Toews. Last season with the Arizona Coyotes, he totaled 14 goals and 19 assists.

Simply put, there is no way a third line of Hagelin, Eller and Panik will produce as much offensively as the third line did last year. The good news, however, is that If the team improved defensively as much as they hope, they shouldn’t need to.

Ben R. writes: Do you anticipate any changes to how the PP gets run this year considering how inconsistent it was last year either a new scheme or different personnel?

The obvious glaring issue with the power play last season was zone entry, so fingers crossed that this will lead the team to scrap the horrendous slingshot which doesn’t work and is ugly to watch. Considering so many other teams utilize it as well, however, I am doubtful they will, but one can hope.

I wonder if Tom Wilson will see more time in T.J. Oshie’s spot in the slot. Wilson does not play that spot as well as Oshie does, but if the team does move on from the slingshot, then the dump-in may be more common and you need that bigger body to fight for the pucks in the corners and behind the goal line to keep possession.

Really, everything depends on how the team decides to fix its zone entry problem. If it remains status quo, then I do not see any changes. If they finally realize how awful the slingshot truly is, then you have to work on a new method for zone entry and put together the best personnel to operate it.

Chas L. writes: With T.J. Oshie possibly looking at less playing time on the third line, is it time for the Caps to bring up a prospect or two? With all the new free agent additions, the Caps all together have gotten a lot older age wise. Would it hurt to maybe push down players like Lars Eller and Oshie and bring up some young prospects?

A few things. First, moving Oshie down to the third line was more realistic before they lost so much offensive depth. I have written on this topic before about how I believe reducing Oshie’s minutes would be beneficial given his playing style, but I am not sure how realistic an option this is when the two candidates to replace him would be Hagelin and Panik.

Hagelin’s offense is a bit too limited for me to put him in the top-six when the team is at full strength. He is a solid replacement player if there is an injury in the top-six, but otherwise that is not ideal. Panik, on the other hand, is an unknown coming in as a free agent.

Second, bringing in prospects is a great option if you have prospects ready to make the jump. The Caps do not think they do and they showed that with all the depth signings they made in the offseason. You do not sign Panik or Garnet Hathaway for four years if you think Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Shane Gersich are going to be taking their jobs at the start of the season.

MacLellan was probably hoping more prospects would be ready for the NHL as they would have been cheap replacements for the players lost, but I am not sure anyone is ready to make that jump yet.

Third, part of the appeal of pushing Oshie to the third line, if that was still a realistic possibility, would be to play him with Eller. They have great chemistry together and this would be a formidable third line. Pushing Eller to the fourth not only would push Nic Dowd out of the lineup, but it would also waste Eller’s skill. There comes a point where a team can have too much depth and it becomes a waste. If Washington had several home-grown centers knocking on the door, trading Eller would be a more realistic possibility. As of now, however, that is not the case.

John F. writes: Not to go full-Don Cherry, but is the lack of "good Canadian boys" on the team a concern? (For the record: I don't think it is).

No. Where players are from is completely irrelevant. It is foolish and I would argue racist to think having one specific nationality is the key to winning. I can take Don Cherry’s “old man yelling at clouds” takes because those are harmless. His blind support of all things Canadian while downplaying players of other nationalities, however, is infuriating to me.

Cherry may want to believe the Caps won the Stanley Cup because of Tom Wilson and Braden Holtby, but this completely ignores the all-time great Russian who won the Conn Smythe, a Russian who led the team in scoring, a future Hall of Fame Swedish center, a top defensive pairing with an American and a Czech and a Dane who scored the Cup clinching goal.

This is a ridiculous sentiment that for some reason lingers in Canada, where no team has won a Stanley Cup since 1993, but I am sure that is just because none of those teams had enough Canadian players.

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, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role in Washington?

20 Burning Capitals Questions: Can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role in Washington?

The long, endless summer is only halfway done. The Capitals last played a game on April 24 and will not play another one until Oct. 2.

But with free agency and the NHL Draft behind them now, the 2019-2020 roster is almost set and it won’t be long until players begin trickling back onto the ice in Arlington for informal workouts.

With that in mind, and given the roasting temperatures outside, for the next four weeks NBC Sports Washington will look at 20 burning questions facing the Capitals as they look to rebound from an early exit from the Stanley Cup playoffs, keep alive their Metropolitan Division title streak and get back to their championship form of 2018.

The list will look at potential individual milestones, roster questions, prospects who might help and star players with uncertain futures. Today we look at one of the biggest questions on the team’s defense, can Nick Jensen handle a top-four role?

When the Caps acquired Jensen at the trade deadline and immediately re-signed him for four years, the implication was clear. Suddenly, Matt Niskanen and his $5.75 million cap hit became expendable.

With the team expected to be hard up against the salary cap in the offseason, the salary would need to be moved. Sure enough, Niskanen was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Radko Gudas.

Gudas is a good pick up for the third-pair, but this trade is a move that only makes sense if you have a top-four defenseman to replace Niskanen on the right. Gudas, Jensen and John Carlson’s are the team’s three right-handed shots. Carlson is obviously cemented on the top pairing and Gudas is headed to the third. That leaves Jensen as the only real option on the second pair. After seeing him struggle since coming to Washington at the trade deadline, it is fair to be a little worried.

Jensen showed last season that he can be a top-four defenseman in the NHL while with the Detroit Red Wings. He was a healthy scratch on opening night, but he made sure he was not scratched again by the Red Wings and averaged 20:48 of ice-time over 60 games before he was traded.

Sure, a lack of defensive depth helped, but Jensen’s play was what earned him that spot more than anything else and it is why Washington traded for him and re-signed him before he ever played a game for the Caps.

But when he got to Washington, Jensen started struggling. An in-season trade can often be difficult with players forced to adjust to a new team and new system. Jensen certainly will not be the last trade deadline acquisition to struggle to make that transition.

“I think there was a period of adjustment where coaches were asking him to play a different system in a different way than he’s played,” Brian MacLellan said at the team’s breakdown day. “The good games were really good, I thought. And the down games were him trying to figure out system stuff and individual stuff that they were wanting him to do on the ice.”

In Detroit, defensemen do not shift too much from side to side. The blueliners have their side and they skate straight up and down the ice. In Washington, however, defensemen are constantly switching sides during play and you are expected to cover whatever side you are on when the puck begins moving back down towards the defensive zone.

Jensen is a right-shot defenseman and was not at all comfortable playing on the left. That is not uncommon. There are a lot more left-shot defensemen than righties and often if you see a player playing his off-side, it is a lefty playing on the right. Righties just are not expected to play on the left all that often because there are fewer of them. For Jensen, even having to shift over to the left within a play proved difficult.

Carolina Hurricanes forward Warren Foegele used this to his advantage in a regular season game against Washington in which he turned Jensen inside-out.

When you watch closely, this play is less about the fancy stickwork of Foegele and more about a defenseman who does not look comfortable at all playing on the left.

It is important to clarify what we are talking about here. The Caps are not asking Jensen to be a left defenseman. That would not be a great situation and there would be no guarantee he would ever get to the point where he could be a top-four defenseman playing on his off-side. The team’s system simply allows for defensemen to cycle from side-to-side situationally. When the opposition transitions down the ice, you may not have the opportunity to switch back to your original side and are instead expected to defend that transition from whichever side you are on. This would largely apply to quick transitions. Adjusting to that is not at all impossible and Jensen’s ability to do so will be absolutely critical for the team’s success next season.

The Niskanen trade certainly looks like a shrewd move by MacLellan as it not only saved the team money, but also upgraded the bottom pair. The move only makes sense, however, if and only if it did not leave the team with a hole in the top-four. In that case, the team will have gotten worse defensively, not better.

With a full offseason and training camp to prepare, Jensen should look far more comfortable within the system. As last season’s camp with Detroit showed, he can be prone to slow starts, but we should know by Thanksgiving if Jensen is starting to feel at home with Washington or if the defense is in serious trouble.

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