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.
Other key Caps questions
- How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?
- Will the Caps suffer a Stanley Cup hangover?
- Can Alex Ovechkin still challenge for another Rocket Richard Trophy?
- Has Evgeny Kuznetsov made the jump from really good player to superstar?
- Will John Carlson repeat his career year after signing a long-term contract?
- Which Braden Holtby will we see this season?
- Will Tom Wilson make more headlines this season for his offense or physical play?
- Can Pheonix Copley handle the backup role?