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A more mature Jakub Vrana is taking his fourth line demotion in stride

A more mature Jakub Vrana is taking his fourth line demotion in stride

After a rough performance against the Dallas Stars on Saturday, Jakub Vrana found himself moved from the top line to the fourth for Monday’s game against the Edmonton Oilers.

There was a time in his career in which Vrana would not have handled such a move very well, but on Monday a motivated Vrana played like he had been shot out of a cannon and scored less than three minutes into the game.

“That says a lot to me about him as a young player maturing,” Reirden said after the game. “That was a strong statement by him.”

Vrana’s reaction to getting bumped to the fourth line shows just how much he has matured as a player since being drafted in 2014.

As a first round draft pick, Vrana hit a wall while playing with the Hershey Bears. He had the talent to be an NHL player, but could not crack the Caps’ loaded lineup. Frustration over being stuck in the AHL translated into poor play leading to instances in which then head coach Troy Mann would scratch Vrana from the lineup altogether.

Vrana has demonstrated he has the talent to be a top-six talent in the NHL, but with multiple turnovers and an uneven performance on Saturday against the Stars, Vrana was moved down to the fourth line.

Unlike how he responded to being stuck in the AHL, the move from the top line to the bottom motivated him to work harder.

“If you have a game like I had, you have to forget it right away,” Vrana said Tuesday after an optional skate for the team. “I know it's really hard for some players. Obviously you think about it, right? It's not easy to forget. But you have to find a way back your confidence [sic]. The best way to find it is on a training pitch. I just tried to work hard.”

With the way he played, it is likely Vrana won’t be stuck in the bottom-six for very long.

The maturity of Vrana’s mentality and the skill he continues to show have not been lost on Reirden.

“I talked to him earlier [Monday] and I wasn't in the least bit concerned about his game,” Reirden said. “Showed him some video earlier and just explained -- again for me communication with players is really important and letting them know why you had certain ideas on what you're going to do and explaining to them what's expected. That's today's player. Good or bad, you have to tell them ok you're going from the first line to not the first line. How are you going to react?”

Vrana found instant chemistry Monday playing alongside his former Hershey teammate Travis Boyd. Considering how well the Vrana, Boyd, Devante Smith-Pelly line looked on Monday, it would not be surprising to see it again for Wednesday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

But as good as it looked, that fourth line is not likely to remain intact for long. With four goals and seven points on the season, Vrana continues to show off his top-six skill. Now he also has the maturity he needs to consistently perform at the NHL level.

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Making the case for each of the Capitals’ four goalies

Making the case for each of the Capitals’ four goalies

Goalie may not be the most important position in hockey, but it is certainly the most impactful. No player has a bigger effect on a single game than a goalie, so teams better make sure they have a good plan for who can lead them in the crease heading into each season.

The Capitals have been set at goalie for several years now, but heading into the 2019-20 season there is some question about what the team’s goalie tandem will and should look like. Luckily for general manager Brian MacLellan and head coach Todd Reirden, they have plenty of options.

Here are the four goalies who could see playing time this year, along with the case for each of them.

Braden Holtby

Why there is an argument: In terms of being a starting NHL goalie, Holtby has proven himself time and again. If he remains with the team, he is the No. 1 next season without question. That is not the issue. But Holtby is heading into the final year of his contract, and the team’s top prospect, Ilya Samsonov, is a goalie. Wouldn’t it be smart to trade Holtby now to avoid losing him for nothing next summer?

The case for Holtby: Trading away a player on the final year of his contract can be smart business, but not always. Circumstances ultimately dictate whether a move like this makes sense, and the fact is it would not make sense for the Caps.

The team’s mentality heading into the season is the championship window is still open. That’s why a team with serious cap constraints still went out and added pieces like Richard Panik and Garnet Hathaway in order to make the roster better. If the goal this season is a Stanley Cup, then you have to keep the goalie who brought you there two years ago, instead of entering the season relying on a starter with zero NHL experience.

There are plenty of examples of teams that have held onto prominent free agents and were burned by them the following year. John Tavares left the New York Islanders for Toronto and the Columbus Blue Jackets just saw both of its top players, including goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, leave this offseason. But this does not mean teams should trade away players every time they reach the final year of their contracts. The mistake the Islanders and Blue Jackets made was keeping those players despite having no reasonable chance of winning a Cup.

The Islanders did not even make the playoffs in Tavares’ last season, and a Blue Jackets team that had never won a playoff series decided it was a good idea to go all-in for “one more run.”

The Caps, on the other hand, are just one year removed from winning the Cup with the same core. They will not be the favorites heading into this season, but it is not unreasonable to think they still have a chance. That chance would fall between “slim” and “none” if they traded away Holtby before the season started.

Plus, while Samsonov may be considered the future of the franchise, that can change. What if he stinks this season? What if Holtby is great? It seems pretty clear right now this will most likely be Holtby’s last season in Washington, but will it still look that way midway into the season? Keeping Holtby for now at least gives the Caps a chance to talk with him about next season and keep that door open just in case.

Pheonix Copley

Why there is an argument: The Caps are still over the salary cap and need to find ways to save money. A backup goalie with a cap hit of $1.1 million may be just too expensive considering there are two cheaper alternatives.

The case for Copley: Backup goaltending is an underrated factor in a team’s success, but it is extremely important. There was a question of whether Copley was even good enough to be an NHL backup heading into last season, but a 16-7-3 record on a team that struggled defensively last season shows that Copley is absolutely a serviceable backup.

While there is certainly a case to be made for each of the team’s younger goalies (more on that later), both goalies remain unknowns at the NHL level and there may be some growing pains when they reach the big leagues. Washington’s backups are going to play in 25 games this season at a minimum and probably closer to 30-35. The team is going to need points in those games against an ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division.

Copley’s skill set is far from elite. His ceiling is as a backup, and there are plenty of times when he seems to struggle even making reasonably easy saves. Many of his best saves last season came from him having to make up for his own mistakes. Having said that, you know Copley can get you points, and those will be at a premium.

Also, unlike Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek, Copley is not waiver exempt, meaning if the Caps want to send him to Hershey, they risk losing him. The Maple Leafs lost both Curtis McElhinney and Calvin Pickard on waivers last season and...yeah, they regretted it.

Ilya Samsonov

Why there is an argument: Samsonov is widely considered the future starter for the franchise, but he has yet to play a single NHL game and struggled immensely in Hershey at the start of last season, his first in North America. You do not want to bring him up too soon, only to sit him on the bench behind Holtby and mess with his development.

The case for Samsonov: Unless you have been living under a rock, you have probably heard by now that Holtby is on the last year of his deal, and it seems unlikely he will be back next season. If that's how it plays out, presumably the plan going forward will be for Samsonov to take over. If he does, you have to have at least some idea of what you have in him.

Is Samsonov ready to be a No. 1 next season? Is he even ready to be a full-time NHL goalie? Is he as good as we all think he is? We ultimately won’t know unless we see him in the NHL.

It is unlikely Samsonov plays enough next season to give us answers to any of those questions -- it does not make sense for him to play 20 games as an NHL backup and sit on the bench behind Holtby instead of getting 40-50 games in the AHL -- but MacLellan is going to have a much better idea of what the team’s situation in net will be next season if he at least gets a few looks at Samsonov in the NHL. He has to get some NHL time, even if it is limited.

Vitek Vanecek

Why there is an argument: The ceiling is not nearly as high for the 23-year-old prospect as it is for Samsonov. While Samsonov is seen as a future starter, Vanecek is either a high-end AHL goalie or possibly an NHL backup. After a strong season in the AHL, however, has he earned a shot?

The case for Vanecek: Of the four options, Vanecek is certainly fourth on the team’s depth chart. He is not an NHL starter like Holtby, there is no real buzz around him as a budding starter like there is with Samsonov and he has not established himself as an NHL backup the way Copley has. Having said that, Vanecek is also a more polished, finished product than the still-developing Samsonov and had a better season in Hershey last year.

But the real case for Vanecek comes down to money.

Currently the Caps remain over the salary cap and will have to find a way to get under before the start of next season. They have options for how they can do that, but Vanecek provides an intriguing possibility. With a cap hit of only $716,667, if the Caps used Vanecek as Holtby’s backup and waived Copley, then the only other move the team would have to make to get under the cap would be to waive Chandler Stephenson.

Washington has two extra forwards on the roster, Stephenson was underwhelming last year and his new contract is just low enough that the entire salary can be buried in the AHL.

This is the simplest solution to solving the team’s cap issues. Keeping any other goalie combination will force the team to get creative in order to make the money work. If the team has faith in Vanecek as a backup, then this would make MacLellan's job before next season a heck of a lot easier.

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Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Philadelphia Flyers

Metropolitan Division Outlook 2019-20: The Philadelphia Flyers

The Capitals enter the 2019-20 season looking for their fifth consecutive Metropolitan Division title. 

But this could be the most challenging year yet. The bottom of the division has improved dramatically with offseason moves and the top of the division still has quality teams. It’s hard to figure who will crater and finish last. The winning team might not top 100 points.  

For the next two weeks, NBC Sports Washington will take a look at each Metro team and where they stand with training camps opening in less than a month. Today: The Philadelphia Flyers. 

Few teams were as confusing last year as the Flyers. They began the year a lethargic and uninspired 12-15-4 and fired coach Dave Hakstol in mid-December. After a dead cat bounce under interim coach Scott Gordon, Philadelphia then went winless in eight games in early January. They gamely finished the year 22-15-2 and for a time were even on the edge of the Eastern Conference playoff race into early March. But it was too late. They finished a thoroughly mediocre 37-37-8 with 82 points and in sixth place in the Metro. 

The roster just wasn’t deep enough and help in goal from rookie Carter Hart came too late. It was all somewhat baffling given the talent on hand. This year, with an experienced new coach in Alain Vigneault, a full season expected from Hart and some offseason upgrades, Philadelphia should make a darkhorse run at an Eastern Conference playoff spot.

It all starts with Hart. An organization that has been inept in goal for well over 20 years, finally has a top prospect who looks like the real deal. Hart had a .917 save percentage in 31 games after his promotion from the AHL. He’s still just 21 so there’s no guarantee he won’t fall victim to the Flyers’ goalie curse. But Hart has the pedigree to be a top-tier NHL goalie. He’s in line, for now, to split the gig with veteran Brian Elliott, which should ease some of the pressure. 

If Hart is as good as advertised, though, there is talent to work with in front of him. A top line of Claude Giroux (22 goals, 63 assists), Sean Couturier (33 goals, 43 assists) and Travis Konecny (24 goals, 25 assists) should be one of the best in the league. Couturier, especially, has become a terror of a two-way player and was sixth in the Selke Trophy voting. Konecny is still just 22, the vanguard of young talent in the organization. 

The Flyers tried to upgrade the second line and did with center Kevin Hayes coming from Winnipeg as a free agent. The deal was a bit much with a cap hit at $7.14 million for seven years. Hayes is a good player, but has never had more than 55 points and has topped 25 goals just once. That’s a steep price. But it does make Philadelphia deeper. 

Jakub Voracek is still good to make a run at 70-to-80 points and maybe playing with Hayes helps get him back there. His career with the Flyers has been a yo-yo with point totals bouncing from the low 60s every other year to the low 80s. Last year Voracek was at 66. Notch that a little higher and Philadelphia will be a tough matchup with two powerhouse lines. At 23, Oskar Lindblom (17 goals, 16 assists) could make a big leap playing with Hayes and Voracek. 

Another key young player is Nolan Patrick, who figures to be the third-line center. At 21 just before the season starts, the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft has taken his lumps in two full NHL seasons. But the talent is there. If he can make that jump then the Flyers will really be moving in the right direction. Patrick should have James van Riemsdyk on his line and while his numbers dipped last year (27 goals, 21 assists) in just 66 games, there’s no reason to think he can’t rebound to the 60-point level he’s reached before. 

It’s the blue line that’s in question. The Flyers traded Radko Gudas to the Capitals for Matt Niskanen, which 18 months earlier would have been an easy win. But Gudas got better last year at age 29 and Niskanen declined alarmingly before a brief rebound near the end of the season and will be 33 in December. And he’s projected on their top pair with Ivan Provorov, who seemed to take a step backward in his age 21/22 season. 

It’s a young group with Travis Sandheim, 23, on the second pair and the promising Phillippe Myers, 22, likely on the third pair after playing 21 games as a rookie. 

Maybe that’s why Philadelphia traded for Niskanen and San Jose’s Justin Braun, 32, who also seemed to lose a step last season with the Sharks despite playing with Marc-Edouard Vlasic. Shayne Gostisbehere, 26 now, is an offensive dynamo but has stagnated. This is a weird mix of players. It’s on Vigneault and his coaching staff to get them to gel. 

The Capitals and Penguins are beginning to show signs of age. The Devils and Rangers made splashy moves in free agency and the draft and via trade. The Islanders virtually stayed pat, but they finished second in the division and Barry Trotz won the Jack Adams Award. Carolina reached the Eastern Conference Final and probably has the youngest talent in the division. 

The Flyers are getting lost in the shuffle in this wide-open Metro. Only Columbus, which lost its two best players, has as many questions. But there is talent here and Philadelphia was a much better, more cohesive team in the final three months of the season. 

Can that carry over under a new coach who knows how to build teams? Vigneault took the Rangers to the Cup Final in 2014 and the Eastern Conference Final in 2015. Making a run at the playoffs and seeing legitimate development from young players like Hart and Sandheim and Patrick and Lindblom would be a rousing success. Don’t discount them.   

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