You don’t have to watch Jakub Vrana very long to realize just how talented he is. Unfortunately for him, you also don’t have to watch very long to realize how turnover prone he can be as well.
Carelessness with puck management has been one of the glaring issues for the Caps in the early season and Vrana, as he has been for much of his young career, is certainly guilty of that.
Vrana’s combination of talent and penchant for on-ice mistakes presents a problem for head coach Todd Reirden as he has to find the right place plug him into the lineup. That challenge has thus far proven difficult.
Vrana entered the Nov. 3 game against the Dallas Stars on the top line. After a minus-three game and a turnover in overtime that led to Dallas’ game-winning goal, he found himself on the fourth line the very next game with barely eight minutes of ice time.
“We'll continue to try to remove those glaring turnovers or defense mistakes from his game,” Reirden said recently. “I think it's something that has improved compared to prior years which is why he spent the majority of the time up with those top-six guys, but it's sometimes good for a reset with some of the bottom-six guys and then start slotting him back in.”
At 22-years-old, mistakes on the ice are to be expected. But Vrana may take that to the extreme.
Not only does Vrana commit a lot of careless turnovers, he is also guilty of taking far too many penalties. Vrana ranks third on the team with 14 penalty minutes.
Mistakes by a forward are not nearly as glaring to a coach as those by a defensemen considering the mistakes tend to happen in the offensive zone and are less likely to result in a goal for the other team. When those offensive zone mistakes lead to offensive zone penalties, however, that’s a different story.
But Vrana is simply too skilled to bury in the lineup or take out altogether. With four even-strength goals, Vrana is tied for the third-most on the team behind only T.J. Oshie (7) and Alex Ovechkin (6). Of all the forwards Reirden has cycled into the top line in Tom Wilson’s absence to play with Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, Vrana was the player who seemed to fit the best. He does not provide the same sort of defensive balance to the top line as Wilson does, but no one has been able to step in and adequately fill Wilson’s spot thus far. Vrana added an extra element of speed and offensive skill to an already dangerous line and seemed to show chemistry with Kuznetsov especially.
“There's some really good things that he's showing,” Reirden said. “The speed he plays with, the release of his shot, the chances he's getting, you've got to try to find ways to get him out there more.”
But Wilson will soon return to fill his top line role and Reirden will soon get his full lineup for the first time this season. Yet, almost a quarter into the season Vrana still makes it hard to find the right spot for him.
Putting Vrana on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie – if Reirden reunites Ovechkin and Kuznetsov – seems like the best fit. Backstrom and Oshie can make up for Vrana’s defensive issues and Vrana can provide speed on an otherwise slower line.
But at some point, Vrana has to cut back on the turnovers and the penalties.
“You've got to continue to show him,” Reirden said. “Continue to show him, continue to `remind him, continue to teach and help him grow and get better. That's a young player trying to become a top-six full time.”
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OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Carrying a three-game losing streak and a losing record, the Baltimore Ravens now face the burden of uncertainty at the quarterback position.
Joe Flacco is nursing a hip injury that could keep him out of Sunday's game against Cincinnati, an AFC North matchup that carries huge ramifications for the sagging Ravens.
With Baltimore coming off a bye, Flacco received an additional week of rest and treatment after sustaining the injury on Nov. 4 in the opening minutes of a 23-16 loss to Pittsburgh.
Flacco went the distance, completed 23 of 37 passes for 206 yards. His status this week, however, is unclear.
"He's getting treatment, just like all the guys are getting treatment, and we'll see," coach John Harbaugh said Monday. "I'd say that we'll know more as the week goes on and I'm hopeful all our guys play, including Joe."
If Flacco can't play, rookie Lamar Jackson will likely get his first NFL start, although veteran Robert Griffin III is also an option. Griffin gets the nod in NFL experience, but he's been inactive in every game this season while Jackson has been used periodically because of his ability to run.
"It's up in the air. We're not worried about it," Harbaugh insisted. "We're blessed with a good quarterback room. It's a good thing, that's a positive thing. We've got three guys who can play. It's just like any other position in my mind. You go with the next guy and you roll."
The Ravens (4-5) reached their bye week with losses to New Orleans, Carolina and Pittsburgh. The skid ruined a decent start and left the team in recovery mode as it seeks to snap a run of three straight seasons without reaching the playoffs.
This is the 11th season that Harbaugh and Flacco have been together in Baltimore, and the coach would love to see his quarterback rally the Ravens into the postseason.
"Any direction we decide to go or we're forced to go, it will be based on the health of Joe. If Joe can play, he'll play," Harbaugh said. "He's rehabbing to play. Joe does not have to practice to play. He's practiced the whole season, he's practiced for 11 years. But he might practice. We just have to see how it goes."
The 33-year-old Flacco has played through many an injury throughout his career. He did so against the Steelers. His teammates feel that if he can walk, he will play.
"Joe is one of the toughest guys I've played with, maybe the toughest guy," guard Marshal Yanda said. "You never see him limping around, you never see him on the field showing any sign of weakness. He's just been a rock for us. I have nothing but respect for the guy."
Tackles Ronnie Stanley (ankle) and James Hurst (back) did not play against the Steelers, but both are expected to return Sunday when the Ravens begin a stretch -- with or without Flacco -- that will define their season.
"We're in the hunt," Harbaugh said. "We'll write the story of the Ravens' 2018 season by how we play in the next seven weeks. That's what our guys are juiced up for. Get the Cincinnati Bengals in as fast as we can, and let's go play the game.
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