When hockey finally returns in 2021, the Capitals will have their sights set on the Stanley Cup. Every team enters each season with questions that need to be answered. We are looking at the biggest questions facing the Capitals in 2021.
Today's question: Will Jakub Vrana rebound from a tough postseason?
There were a lot of things that went wrong for the Capitals in the 2020 postseason and Jakub Vrana was among them. After what was a very good - but little talked about regular season - Vrana recorded zero points in eight postseason games. The low point came in Game 3 when he had a breakaway in overtime. He did not score and Mathew Barzal would score on the counter by the New York Islanders to win the game. It was a devastating swing and one that Vrana probably couldn't shake for quite some time.
On an aging Capitals team, however, Vrana is one of the few young talents the team can boast. At 24, he is a lethal scorer and someone the team desperately needs to produce. So can he rally from a tough postseason or will his struggles linger into 2021?
When looking at Vrana, clearly his postseason struggles were not limited to 2020. In 2019, he also failed to record a point in seven playoff games. That year, he was very clearly dealing with an upper-body injury. If there was an injury in 2020, it wasn't evident and, since the team did not conduct an end of season media availability, the media did not get a chance to ask. Even with injuries, however, the fact that a young top-six winger's last postseason point came on June 7, 2018 when he scored in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights is troubling.
The good news is that Vrana's postseason struggles in 2019 did not follow him to the following regular season where he was brilliant with 25 goals and 27 assists. Clearly, he can rebound from this, but as Washington has Stanley Cup aspirations, the team needs him to perform both in the regular season and the postseason.
Is he capable of performing in the playoffs? We know the answer is yes because we've seen it. In the 2018 Cup run, Vrana scored three goals and eight points in 23 games. That may not sound like a lot, but he averaged less than 12 minutes of ice-time per game and played a very limited role at the start of the postseason. That role was expanded when Tom Wilson was suspended and head coach Barry Trotz had to shuffle the top six. In fact, Vrana was the key player in the Caps' Game 5 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins which gave Washington the 3-2 series lead. We know he can perform when it matters.
In the two years under Todd Reirden, there are players who had a clear decline in their play, especially in the postseason. While Vrana had success in the regular season, in the playoffs he went from a key depth player under Trotz to an unproductive top-six player under Reirden. It would be unfair to lay all of Vrana's struggles at the feet of Reirden, but clearly something was not clicking the past two seasons beyond just injuries. Caps fans should hope that Vrana will be the type of player who can thrive under the more disciplined hand of a coach like Peter Laviolette.
Beyond coaching, however, there is an obvious way to increase Vrana's production and that is on the power play.
With a loaded offense, Vrana is largely relegated to the underused second-unit on the power play. Washington's power play was bad last season and the second unit has been largely ignored for several years. Vrana seems unlikely to replace Alex Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov or John Carlson on the top unit, but considering how much the team struggled with the extra man last season, surely getting a second unit with Vrana as the main scoring threat more playing time has to be among the adjustments the team can explore in 2021. Beyond that, figuring out what makes Vrana tick and using that to motivate him in the postseason should be among Laviolette's top priorities this season.