Capitals

Quick Links

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

jakub-vrana-capitals-celebration-white-usat.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

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. 

 

MORE CAPITALS NEWS:

Quick Links

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. 

MORE CAPITALS NEWS:

Quick Links

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.”

MORE CAPITALS NEWS: