Jakub Vrana

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How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

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How the Caps' European players are adjusting to life thousands of miles from home

When the Capitals take the ice each game, they represent Washington, D.C. Off the ice, however, the players are a collection of talent from all over the world. Washington is the team they play for, but neither Washington nor America is where many of them come from. Many players are a long way from home, playing hockey in what is, for them, a foreign country.

Hockey is what brought them to America and adjusting to a new country brings with it a number of challenges. Coming from Canada is one thing, but coming from Europe where life is very different is quite another.

The Capitals roster is full of several players from all over Europe. What is it like trying to adjust to life in America? What does this country look like from an outside perspective? In their own words, here are the stories of those players about what life is like in their new home.

What was adjusting to life in America like when you first came to this country?

Nicklas Backstrom: "It was different, that's for sure. I think first of all, the culture back home when you play, we had a lot of single guys over there. We practiced in the morning, had lunch together and then we went grab a coffee, sit down together, had dinner together. We pretty much were hanging out with each other for the whole day. I think culture over here a little bit more is you practice and then you go home, do your own stuff. It was a little bit of transition to start there, but once you get used to it you just adjust. I think that was the biggest eye-opener for me because that's the only thing I knew before I come over here and then all of a sudden you were just solo, by yourself. A little different, but once you adjust, you're fine.”

Radko Gudas: “The States and Europe, everything is different. Even the smallest thing is little bit different. It's definitely a lot of getting used to it. Moving from Washington State to Virginia to New York, every state has something different. Going from the West Coast to the East Coast, it was a lot of things to get used to.

“When I got drafted, I signed two weeks after that and I didn't have my [social security number]. I couldn't get any paychecks yet. I didn't have a bank account in the States, I didn't have nothing. My first, I would say month and a half, maybe two months I was pretty much living off my per diem or what my savings were from the leagues in Czech Republic. … I had to get a car, driver's license which was a pain in the ass, the insurance. I had a lot of help from all the staff and the Norfolk Admirals front office. Really happy that they helped me through a lot, but I’m sure I wasn't the only guy that they had to deal with through all this. It's obviously not an easy thing to do, but if you have the right people, I was fortunate enough to have the right people around me to help me through a lot. Made it all the way here and still don't have the IRS knocking on my door so I guess I did something right.”

Axel Jonsson-Fjallby: “Go to the grocery store, I don't know the brands. Don't know what's the best brand and stuff like that. So just small things.”

Martin Fehervary: “In Europe, in Sweden I came, I got everything set up. Here I had to find apartment so I did. Need to figure it out my car so lifestyle like this. But, I mean, it's fun.”

Eller: “It's different, but I think the biggest part is just being a grownup, being an adult, paying the bills, paying rent, finding out things on your own. For a lot of guys it's a big step of maybe living with a family or living at home and now all of a sudden you're on your own. You've got to cook, you've got to grocery shop, you've got to do this and that. I think that's the biggest step, just becoming an adult person, not necessarily it doesn't have to do with hockey. And also, I think if you speak the language it helps a lot, but for like a Russian player or eastern Europeans, that can be a lot tougher for sure. For me, I spoke the language, makes a big difference.”

How much English did you know and how difficult did that make the transition?

Evgeny Kuznetsov: “Zero.”

[Describing his first press conference] “I'm just guessing at that time pretty much every time. I see reaction, if these people happy that means I'm guessing the right way.”

Michal Kempny: “I didn't speak any English. I think the language is No. 1 [hardest part]. I tried to learn English as fast as I could. Different country, different people. I never been in the U.S. before so it was kind of everything new, but year after year I felt better and better.”

Jonas Siegenthaler: “If I didn't understand something it was just maybe one or two words and then I just ask. But overall, I spoke pretty good English from school. I started to learn English when I was seven years old. My birth year was the first year that had this English class from seven years old. I'm glad for that.”

Jakub Vrana: “It's kind of easy to learn when you just in here and you hear it every day. It's different than if you're back home and you're actually going to school and you have a one-hour, two-hour class and it’s like not it, you know? Because then you speak Czech all day. So here you don't have a chance so you're hungry, you're going to ask for food. You're going to understand, it's important.”

Backstrom: “We have English in school, but I was terrible at that, to be honest. I wasn't great. First one or two years, I was pretty quiet around there, I was just trying to learn. I was just trying to pick up the language and it helped me a lot that I had roommates [Matt Bradley, Mike Green] that spoke English. You could practice with them. Once you get a little more confident too, that helps as well.”

Richard Panik: “I had great grades in school in English, but as soon as I got here I didn't understand. I couldn't speak. It took me maybe like six months to get used to it and then it was just easier and easier.”

Carl Hagelin: “I thought I knew it better than I did. It was easy for me to read and stuff, but I think having conversations and speaking in front of people is pretty hard my first year. And then by my third semester [at the University of Michigan], I started picking up more and more. I was pretty quiet my first year, just kind of hung around and tried to learn as much as possible. Because even though you knew, we speak more the Oxford English, British English back home. And then you came over here and you used some words that they would use and some of the guys are just looking at you. And on our team, there was no other Europeans so I would say it's probably easier around an NHL team because you have the Canadians, the French Canadians and people are used to people with different dialects and language.”

Gudas: “I graduated in English as the best of my class so I thought I'm speaking fluently and perfect, but when I showed up in the States I found out I don't know [expletive]. All the slang and all the Canadians around, it was a different English than we learned in school. We learned the proper 'English' English. It took me at least two, three months to get it going to at least be able to have a fun conversation of just like what I need and what I want.”

What is something you find weird or different about America and Americans?

Siegenthaler: “I just found out that you can buy your groceries online, get it delivered. Yeah, back home if you tell somebody that you get your groceries delivered, it's kind of like, um, you're a lazy ass.”

Eller: “I won't say everybody is that way, but [Americans] tend to only know what's going on in America. Everything outside of America, they're not very well educated on that.”

Gudas: “I think the attachment to the phones. You don't see that in Czech. Everybody trying to live more outside than inside, you know? I think that's one thing that could change here.”

Panik: “The first thing I noticed, everybody is just too friendly. It just seems like, you don't even know the person and it seems like you know the person for 10 years. It's weird. Back home, we're conservative. I wouldn't say they're bad people, still good, but like here it's more I think when you meet somebody new it's more open.”

Hagelin: “I love the fact that people love going to sporting events. Like back home, if you go to [a] sporting event you go and you kind of sit and you dissect the game. You don't really talk to fans from the other team and you don't really wear jerseys. Like a girl in Sweden would never wear a jersey to a game, they'll get dressed up and go to a game. Here it doesn't matter who you are, you put a jersey on and you show your support. It's a different feel in here. Obviously it's cool in Europe, but the fan clubs are screaming and hollering throughout the whole game, but it's a different experience and I think that's cool.”

Backstrom: “Only thing maybe that I notice is they're really bad drivers in the rain.”

Kuznetsov: “Driving. The way they drive.”

What do you think of American food?

Panik: “Back home when you say American food, everybody imagine hamburgers, fries, but even here you can find great restaurant with the great food. Basically you can cook at home whatever you wanted. I think American food, it means hamburgers. I like it, but I don't eat it that often. It's different than Slovakian for sure.”

Jonsson-Fjallby: “I feel like good food is usually a lot more expensive than fast food and stuff. I mean, in Sweden, it's also cheaper with fast food, but it's not that big a difference so if you want a good dinner it's quite expensive here.”

Eller: “I eat a hot dog or pizza once in a while, but I don't eat a lot. I think it's changed here over the last decade. Now it's trending much more towards healthier food and greens and veggies. People are more aware now than they were a decade ago I think. So it is changing, but you can always find your McDonalds and your Domino's, right? Even though I rarely eat that anymore, I like the diversity. You can get everything. That's what I like about America. Every kind of food is available.”

Hagelin: “You can see there's a bit of a health kick coming now and if you want good food you can always find it. That's the great part especially. I've been fortunate to live in some big cities and some health-conscious people living in those cities, especially in California. Any place you go to, there's some good and healthy food.”

Vrana: “Fries and burgers, that's like typical, isn’t it? Steak? Fries? That's very American? Or ribs? Sometimes it's not bad, but I would not recommend it like eat it too much.”

Ilya Samsonov: “There's better meat here, steaks. Steak is very good.”

Siegenthaler: “It's more fried stuff. More burgers, fries. I found a Swiss restaurant here in D.C. They're pretty good. I think we're pretty good friends. When I miss home or when I miss the Swiss food, I just go get dinner at the Swiss restaurant. Makes me feel like home.”

What do you miss about home?

Kuznetsov: “Everything. People, food. This summer I wasn't home so a long time. Most important, we got the families back home. We've got the grandmothers, all those people who pretty much see us once in a while. They get so old. The older they get, the more you want to see them.”

Hagelin: “I think just having your family close by. Now with all the technology, it feels like they're close, with facetime and all that. I think just that feeling that everyone's close and you're just a 40-minute car ride away from all your closest people.”

Gudas: “You get a lot of visits here from the family, but the grandmas, grandpas don't come here as much anymore and now having kids, it would be nice to be around the great grandparents and be around them so I think that's the hardest thing for me, not being able to have my kids around my grandparents as much as I would like to. It's always hard in the summer to go and see them for a while because [the kids] need their rest too, but we try to get them involved as much as we can, forcing them to speak as much Czech as we can so they don't only speak English.”

Samsonov: “I don't know, maybe dumplings. A little bit talking with the Russian guys, my friends, my family. It's OK. I'm professional hockey player. That's my life.”


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Looking to spark a suddenly woeful power play, Reirden adds Jakub Vrana to top unit

Looking to spark a suddenly woeful power play, Reirden adds Jakub Vrana to top unit

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Capitals were given every opportunity to win on Wednesday against the Philadelphia Flyers, but the power play failed them. The 3-2 loss was an exclamation point to what has been a troubling trend for Washington since the start of December: the vaunted power play that has for so long dominated the league just has not been good enough.

Washington had three opportunities in the second period and an additional two in the third, but went 0-for-5 on the night in what was a one-goal loss. Not only did the power play not produce, but the Caps gave up a shorthanded breakaway goal to Kevin Hayes that proved to be the game-winner.

“I think when you have a good power play, you've got a target on your back,” said Tom Wilson who plays on the second unit. “Teams have an emphasis on studying the video and we're going to have to work through it. At the end of the day, we've had some good chances throughout the game, we aren't getting results.”

But it was not just one bad game. This has been an issue for some time now.

Since Dec. 1, Washington ranks 30th in the NHL on the power play with 13.7-percent. That is over the course of 17 games, not at all a small sample size.

A unit that boasts John Carlson, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov has got to be better and the team knows it.

“It's generally your top players out there so someone has to step up and we've got to get the job done,” Wilson said. “It's as simple as that.”

On Friday, Reirden made a tweak to the personnel in practice putting Jakub Vrana on the top unit and moving Evgeny Kuznetsov down.

"Sometimes when you struggle, like we have the last couple games, I feel like sometimes you just need to shake it up a little bit,” Backstrom said. “We always had two good units and to be able to split it up, I think it just gives other teams -- it's going to be harder for them to defend. We want to be better on the power play, and we need to be better. Shake things up and see where we're at."

“It's just maybe like coach changes the lines sometimes if you're not getting things done 5-on-5,” Wilson said. “I don't think it's much different than that.”

Vrana’s power play time this season has been limited to just 1:33 per game as he plays on an under-utilized second unit. As a result, he has no power play goals at all this season. But Vrana has proven himself to be a lethal scorer with 19 even-strength goals. That is two more than Ovechkin has and ranks tied for third in the NHL.

“I've been watching them for almost three years now and I’ve learned a lot,” Vrana said of the top unit. “It is a good opportunity and I want to take advantage of every chance I got and just going to make sure you are prepared and ready to go out there and do your best."

But will Vrana’s addition to the power play really be the change the team needs?

Vrana is a lethal scorer to be sure, but if he plays in Kuznetsov’s spot, he may not get much opportunity to actually put pucks on the net. Kuznetsov plays the corner on the power play and is often positioned on or below the goal line, his primary responsibility being to distribute the puck mainly to either Backstrom on the half wall or Oshie in the slot. Unless the power play setup is tweaked as well as the lineup, Vrana may not find himself in a position where he can have as great an impact as it is hoped.

“I'm playing low so I'm going to make sure I'm winning the battles around the net and give it to Backy's hands,” Vrana said. “I am going to be out there and use my skills and try to create some offense and get us going."

But the move is not just about hoping Vrana can fix the top unit, it is also about being able to throw two different power play units out on the ice. Washington has leaned heavily on its top unit and Reirden expects that in part may be the problem.

“For us, we want to spread some of the talent out and go with a little bit of a shorter shift mentality where we can win some more puck battles because right now we're not winning enough puck battles. We’ve gotten out-worked in some areas. I think that by having a fresher group out there then I think that our success level for winning puck battles and executing better will improve.”

Should that not work, Reirden made it clear he had plenty of other options in terms of personnel he could throw out on the ice.

“We feel confident in a number of different guys and different spots,” he said. “We feel just at this point this is the right thing to do. Looking forward to watching it Saturday night.”

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Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Why is Vrana on the third line?

Capitals Mailbag Part 1: Why is Vrana on the third line?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! Check out Part 1 below.

Have a Caps question you want answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

Benjamin C. writes: Carl Hagelin was great on Sunday but why is he on the second line over Jakub Vrana still? I don’t think Vrana and Evgeny Kuznetsov have good chemistry so shouldn’t Vrana move to 2nd and Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom try switching, like the Cup run?

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: How is Jakub Vrana expected to score his 30+ goals if Todd Reirden is going to punish him on the third line? Everybody knows he’s a top 6 forward.

Sometimes as hockey fans we can have very black and white opinions on personnel moves. This player is better than that player, so they should be on the higher line. In reality, it’s not that simple.

Phil Kessel is a top-six player. In fact, he is more than that, he’s a superstar. But if you turn the clocks back to 2016, Kessel was playing on the third line for the Pittsburgh Penguins and you know what? It proved to be instrumental in them winning the Cup.

There are two things at play here. First, Vrana is a young player who is still developing. Second, the Caps need more production from the third line.

Let’s tackle the first part. Young players are going to catch the ire of coaches more than veterans for their mistakes. It is expected they will make mistakes and the coaches have to correct them. If Backstrom turns the puck over, you know he knows better and you move on. The younger players though need more coaching.

You can quibble with the notion that there are other ways to coach than benching a player, but let's be real, none of the early mistakes we have seen from Vrana are new. The fact of the matter is that these games matter and any mistake can cost a team two points. A younger player would probably get more leeway in the AHL, but this is the NHL and coaches care more about winning than anything else.

The issue I see with Vrana’s game in the early going is that he does not contribute much of anything when he’s not producing. Alex Ovechkin can still have a positive impact on a game without a point, as can Backstrom, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, etc. If you’re going to be a top-six forward, you have to contribute more than just points.

That may sound odd, but it’s true. Patrik Laine may be the next great goal scorer, but he just got a bridge “prove it” deal from the Jets because if he’s not scoring, he is essentially a non-factor. The same can be said of Vrana at the start of this season.

You accept that from a bottom-six guy. Brett Connolly did not do much else other than score, but if you can do that on limited third-line minutes, you take it.  The reason Hagelin was promoted despite a low offensive ceiling is because he is a player who knows how to affect the game in numerous positive ways not limited to just the scoresheet.

Vrana absolutely has top-six skill, but he needs to learn there is more to the game than points. You can see it in his body language that frustration when he doesn’t score affects his game. That’s a problem. Tuesday’s game was encouraging though because of the play he made on Wilson’s goal, driving hard to the net to clear the passing lane open for Wilson to get the puck. Vrana did not get a point on the play, but he completely set it up.

As for the second part, it is not enough in this day and age to rely solely on your top-six for production. Teams need a top-nine that can score. That third line has not been up to snuff thus far. I have long advocated for Oshie to move to that line in part because having a scorer like him would make that line more dangerous. I suspect putting Vrana on that line is in part due to his mistakes but also partly because Reirden is hosting Vrana can coax more offense out of that line.

As for the last bit about switching Backstrom with Kuznetsov, I am surprised we did not see that more last year given how good the Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Wilson line was in the playoffs in the Cup run. Kuznetsov's inconsistencies may be preventing this for now, but I would not be surprised to see it soon.

Doug F. writes: When Michal Kempny returns I see Tyler Lewington getting the scratch. He's had 17 PIM in his first four games this season and 0 points. Would you see Lewington getting sent down or do you think I'm overlooking something and is there a reason they would keep him up over another defenseman?

Obviously Doug wrote this before Kempny returned.

You were right about Lewington getting the scratch. In terms of whether he will stay in Washington, you are overlooking something and that is the salary cap.

Lewington has the lowest cap hit in the organization at $675,000. The house of cards that is Washington's salary cap likely falls apart without him as the No. 7. With the team as tight against the cap as it is, I do not believe they are close to banking enough space to replacing him.

To be fair, all 17 of Lewington’s penalty minutes came against the Colorado Avalanche when he was named the instigator in his fight against Valeri Nichushkin. He was given a two-minute minor, a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct all for that one fight so don’t look at those 17 PIM and think it’s because Lewington can’t stay out of the box. He has not taken another penalty other than that one instance.

Lewington’s ceiling in the NHL is a No. 7 defenseman. I know people saw him score the Gordie Howe hat trick last season, but that's not ultimately what you can expect night in and night out. He’s a high-end AHL player, but not someone an NHL team should have playing an every-day role. He’s essentially the new Taylor Chorney in that he’s someone the team can park as a healthy scratch for much of the season without any worry about what it will do for his development. We already know what he is.

At some point, the team will be able to bank enough space for a player like Martin Fehervary or Alex Alexeyev, but neither player should be called up unless the Caps intend to use them. If all the Caps need is a cheap No. 7, then Lewington is their guy.

@BRose_bro on Twitter writes: Thoughts on Garnet Hathaway so far?

He’s fantastic.

The type of player he is can be summed up in what he did against the New York Rangers. Hathaway was knocked out of the game in the second period with a broken nose, came back in the third, drew a cross-check, fought Brendan Smith (again, with a broken nose), the Caps scored on the resulting power play and Hathaway finished off the game with an empty-netter.

There are a lot of players like Hathway who, on any given night, can prove to be as much of a liability as they are an asset. Hathway was visibly pissed when he returned after his nose was broken and he wanted to fight somebody, but he didn’t put his team in a bad position by taking a dumb penalty because he was mad. He actually drew a penalty before throwing down and it proved to be the pivotal moment of the game.

The fact that he has been able to produce somewhat after getting bumped up to the third line is encouraging too. He ultimately should be a fourth-line player and you hope Reirden doesn’t get too enamored with him and he keeps him on the third line than he should. But otherwise Hathaway looks like a total home run.

@sports_god1 on Twitter writes: Where would you rank the Caps’ fourth line among the NHL fourth lines as it’s pretty strong?

It’s a bit too early in the season for rankings (check out my weekly Power Rankings here!), especially given that the trio has moved around a bit with Nic Dowd in and out of the lineup, Hathaway playing on the third and Richard Panik’s brief stint on the fourth before going on LTIR. Having said that, the fourth line has been brilliant and has proven to be a huge asset for the team thus far. The best most teams can hope for from their fourth line is that it doesn’t hurt the team when it’s on the ice. The Caps don’t have to worry about that.

Thanks for all your questions! Part 2 of the mailbag will be coming on Thursday. If you have a question you want to be answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.