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Key Caps questions: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

Key Caps questions: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Can Jakub Vrana consistently play like a top-six forward?

Tarik: Yes, Jakub Vrana *can* consistently play like a top-six forward. And I think we’ve got enough evidence to say he probably *will* in 2018-19, his second season as a full-time NHLer.

What’s the evidence I’m talking about?

The way he finished off the postseason.

It took Vrana a while to really get going in the playoffs. He was even scratched once vs. Columbus after a looking a little overwhelmed in the opener. But once he experienced that ‘I-can-do-this’ moment—it came when he finished a give-and-go with Lars Eller on the power play in Game 2 against the Penguins—Vrana’s confidence surged and his game took off.

In fact, I thought he was one of the Caps’ best forwards against Tampa Bay and Las Vegas. And I wasn’t alone. The 22-year-old cracked eight minutes in playing time just once in the first Caps’ eight playoff games; he averaged more than 13 minutes per the rest of the way.

And then there was the Stanley Cup-clinching victory. Vrana didn’t score the game winner, but he scored the all-important ice-breaker, a second period snipe on a semi-break that got the Caps’ dreaming about what was possible that night.

No one has ever wondered about Vrana’s ability. His speed and skill screams 20-plus goal scorer. The concerns have always been about focus and hunger, and I think those questions were answered in May and June as the Czech winger shifted his career into a new gear.

Going forward, it’s kind of a good news/bad news situation for Vrana. The good news is that he’s proven to himself and everyone else that he can perform at a world-class level on a night-in and night-out basis. The bad news (if you can even call it that) is this: now that he’s done it, Todd Reirden and Co. won’t accept any excuses or settle for anything less.

JJ: I have to confess I have never understood the trepidation people have when it comes to Vrana. Maybe it stems from the fact that he was a first-round draft pick and is under more scrutiny, but I believe a lot of his "issues" have been largely overblown.

Vrana had trouble focusing in Hershey sometimes. So what? Sure, you would like him to have a different mentality and be 100-percent focused on developing his game and winning in the AHL, but it was clear Vrana was the best player on the team and one of the best players on the ice on any given night. He came to North America to play in the NHL, I do not begrudge him for wanting to make it to the big leagues when he was clearly good enough.

Vrana is also prone to mistakes and turnovers, but he's 22. That's to be expected.

Barry Trotz, who described the NHL as a performance league and not a development league, was at times quick to pull young players from the lineup for making the type of mistakes you would expect young players to make. Vrana was one such player. Because of that, many of Vrana's mistakes were largely overblown. When a player with his talent comes out of the lineup and you watch replay after replay of his mistakes explaining why a player of his caliber is in the press box, you start to think there might be something wrong. There isn't.

Not only will Vrana be another year older this year, but I also expect Todd Reirden will have a bit more patience with him.

The skill is there. Any doubt about whether he belonged was silenced in the playoff run. Tarik mentions Vrana's performance in Game 2 against Pittsburgh, but for me, Game 5 against the Penguins was the real breakthrough.

With Tom Wilson still out with suspension and Devante Smith-Pelly struggling in a top-line role, Vrana stepped in with a big-time performance with a goal and two assists to lead the Caps to the all-important Game 5 win.

Vrana scored 13 goals in his first full NHL season and capped it off with three goals and five assists in his first postseason. He is going to be just fine.

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For former Capitals coach Barry Trotz, no regrets, only memories

For former Capitals coach Barry Trotz, no regrets, only memories

NEW YORK — Barry Trotz’s voice wavered, but it did not break. 
 
In four years with the Capitals he had addressed his players as a group thousands of times just like this one, including in the champagne-soaked, jubilant aftermath of the organization’s first Stanley Cup on June 7 in Las Vegas. 
 
In the visiting locker room at Barclays Center in Brooklyn last month, no longer their coach but a competitor, Trotz accepted his championship ring from Washington captain Alex Ovechkin and gave an emotional speech that addressed the crushing pressure his former team had worked under until they finally broke through together. It was all worth it. 
 
“I’ll die a happy man,” Trotz told them. 

If there was any lingering resentment about how Trotz's time in Washington ended this past summer, it wasn’t on display in the dressing room before the Capitals played the New York Islanders on Nov. 26. 
 
The defending champions are almost intact. Forward Jay Beagle signed as a free agent in Vancouver, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer was traded to Colorado and Trotz, with assistant coaches Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn, was hired by New York. 
 
Trotz left Washington a champion, unable to accept the terms of a contract clause that kicked in for winning the title. He resigned instead and quickly accepted the challenge of coaching the Islanders, a franchise in transition after losing star center Jonathan Tavares in free agency over the summer. 
 
“I want to do the same thing with this group, hopefully build something and share the same moments and the bond that happens when you win a championship,” Trotz said. “But it is closure. I’m a New York Islander. I’m not a Washington Capital.”
 
That’s a jarring statement from the man who holds the second-most victories in franchise history (205) behind only Bryan Murray (343). Washington won two Presidents’ Trophies under Trotz for the NHL’s best record and finally broke through with a Cup after three devastating second-round playoff exits.
 
But the Capitals had a coach-in-waiting in assistant Todd Reirden, who had been on staff with Trotz for four years. And the writing was on the wall when Trotz didn’t receive a contract extension in the summer of 2017. He would have to earn a new deal by going further in the playoffs than he ever had in 18 years as an NHL head coach, further than his players ever had. 
 
They responded by winning a title, and there was money to be made elsewhere. If the relationship at times was rocky, there were no hard feelings at the end. There is the sport of hockey, which Trotz loves, and there is the business, and the two mingled together too often during a memorable but trying season. 
 
“I knew that was an important year for myself, it was an important year for the whole franchise, it was an important year for the key players,” Trotz said. “I saw the pressures that were put on those young men. And there is. It was real.”
 
“When I first got to Washington you could feel it a little bit. By year three and four you could feel that. It was real. There was a tremendous amount of pressure. You get 16, 17,00 people and they’re all thinking ‘Okay here we go again.’ That’s the wrong energy. And I think I stated that. I said ‘I need your help. We need your help. Think positive. Help us out.’ Those guys battled through it. That’s the thing that I admire about them.”  
 
But just six days after the parade down Constitution Avenue, Trotz quit. He planned to head to his cabin in British Columbia, but first met with Islanders team president Lou Lamoriello to hear his vision for the future there. Trotz then flew to Seattle and on to his cabin, where he talked to his wife, Kim, and family – daughters Shalan and Tiana, sons Nolan and Tyson - about the new opportunity. On June 21 he agreed to terms with New York. 
 
That started a whirlwind summer for Trotz, which he called “the most hectic of my life.” He accepted the job with the Islanders, he moved Kim and Nolan, who is special needs, to New York, hired a coaching staff, Shalan had a destination wedding in Maui and Trotz had his day with the Stanley Cup in his hometown of Dauphin, Manitoba.  
 
“I thought I’d put my feet up at my cabin for a few months and ended up back working days after that,” Trotz said. “It’s been good. I was a little worried that it would get to me at some point, but it hasn’t. I think I’m in a good spot, fortunate to be back on the island and hopefully we’re starting to grow something here.”
 
That remains to be seen without Tavares, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs and ranked ninth in the NHL in goals (18) entering play Monday. Yet Trotz has kept New York believing. To the shock of everyone, the Islanders began Monday in third place in the Metropolitan Division and in a playoff spot through 28 games. That could change quickly, but if he gets them there Trotz will be a heavy favorite for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.  

The day of the ring presentation – Washington won the game that night 4-1 – Trotz took to the ice at the Islanders’ practice rink in East Meadow, New York in his distinctive orange-and-blue warmups for the morning skate. He looped around shouting instructions at players as he always did in Washington. The color scheme has changed. The man has not. 
 
“We’ve learned a lot already,” Islanders forward Matt Martin said. “There’s a lot of things to take from Barry and from his staff that they’ve come in and done with us. We’ve tried to soak everything in because his resume speaks for itself, his experience, his success.”
 
There’s a long way to go with 54 games left until the playoffs, so reality of life without Tavares might intrude. But it’s been a good start. Meanwhile, Trotz’s old team keeps chugging along. The Capitals are in first place again in the Metro, a division they’ve won three years in a row. Trotz told them he believes they can win another Cup – though drew smiles when he said they’d have to go through the Islanders first.  
 
“I know it was tough for him to leave our team, but he did such a great job of bringing everyone together and really molding this group,” Washington defenseman Madison Bowey said. “It’s probably been the best team in the league for four years and he gave it his all to make sure we had that success. You can tell through his voice how emotional he was about that, how much he cared about us. That’s the coolest thing. He deserves this more than anyone - a true leader, a true coach.”
 
Trotz held the box with his ring inside and tapped it for emphasis as he gave his former players a speech from the heart. He said “Toddy, give me a hug, bud” and embraced Reirden – a moment that could have turned awkward given how things ended and Reirden’s status as the obvious successor. 

Trotz touched on the memories made, the friendships forged. He told the players and staff he couldn’t wait for reunions in future years, where all the old stories will be told. There will never be any regrets for Barry Trotz. 
 
“A really good chapter in my life and the relationships,” Trotz said. “What we went through the last four years was pretty incredible. The wins and losses and some of the hard times and some of the good times. We all shared that together. And that’s why that bond will be there forever with that group of young men.”

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Capitals vs. Red Wings: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, How to Watch

Capitals vs. Red Wings: Time, TV Channel, Live Stream, How to Watch

The Washington Capitals (17-9-3) are coming off of two straight road wins and return home to host the Detroit Red Wings (13-13-4) for their second matchup of the season, Tuesday, Dec. 11 at 7:30 p.m.

Despite recent injuries to top wingers Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie, the Caps have shown no signs of slowing down and are playing some of their best hockey. The team rifled off seven straight wins before dropping back-to-back games to the Ducks and Golden Knights. But The Caps regained their form on the road, beating the Coyotes and Blue Jackets. 

Alex Ovechkin now sits atop of the NHL lead scorers chart and the young guys are getting in on the action too, with Travis Boyd scoring his first NHL goal and Dmitrij Jaskin scoring his first as a Cap in the Caps' 4-0 win over Columbus Saturday. 

The Red Wings enter the Tuesday content having lost three of their last four games. But Detroit will be a tough out. Eight of their last 12 games have been decided by just a single goal, including their 3-2 loss to Barry Trotz's Islanders on Saturday night.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs. DETROIT RED WINGS: HOW TO WATCH

What: Washington Capitals vs. Detroit Red Wings, Game 30 of the 2018-19 NHL Regular Season

Where: Capital One Arena, Washington, D.C.

When: Tuesday, December 11, 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Capitals vs. Red Wings will be broadcast on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

Live Stream: You can watch the Capitals take on the Red Wings on the new MyTeams by NBC Sports App.

Radio: Caps Radio 24/7, 106.7 The Fan

CAPITALS vs. RED WINGS TV SCHEDULE

6:30 PM: Caps FaceOff Live
7:00 PM: Caps Pregame Live
7:30 PM: Capitals vs. Red Wings (LIVE)
10:00 PM: Caps Postgame Live 
10:30 PM: Caps Overtime Live

CAPITALS vs. RED WINGS INJURY REPORT

Capitals: Tom Wilson (RW): Upper body, TBD; T.J. Oshie (RW): Upper body, TBD; Brooks Orpik (D): Lower body, LTIR;

Red Wings: Danny DeKeyser (D): Hand, Indefinitely; Anthony Mantha (W): Hand, Indefinitely; Trevor Daley (D): Lower body, Day-to-Day; Darren Helm (W): Shoulder, Day-to-Day; Henrik Zetterberg (C): Back, Indefinitely; Evgeny Svechnikov (W): Knee, Day-to-Day; Johan Franzen (W): Concussion, Day-to-Day.

CAPITALS vs. RED WINGS PLAYERS TO WATCH

Alex Ovechkin, LW, Capitals: Alex Ovechkin has had an amazing year and continues to top the charts in his older age. During the Caps' 4-0 win over the Blue Jackets Saturday, Ovi got his 22nd goal of the season, now sitting atop of the NHL lead goalscorers chart. He's on a roll, with 10 goals and six assists through the past 11 games.

Niklas Kronwall, D, Red Wings:  The 37-year-old veteran Kronwall is nearing the end of his hockey career, but has shown no signs of slowing down. Kronwall made a huge, clean hit during the Wings' 3-2 loss to the Islanders Saturday and scored despite the loss. Caps wingers will need to watch out for this defenseman.

CAPITALS vs. RED WINGS SERIES HISTORY

Number of all-time Meetings: 117

All-time record: Capitals lead 51-45-5 (16 ties)

Last Meeting: Capitals won 3-1 at home on November 23, 2018.

Last 10 Regular Season Games: Capitals lead 8-1-2

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