Jakub Vrana returned to town Tuesday afternoon and, by 9 o'clock Wednesday morning, was among the first players on the ice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
Although he isn't required to report for another few weeks, the skilled Czech winger was eager to get a head start on the most important training camp of his career.
"My goal, of course, is make the team," Vrana said after an informal practice with a group that featured Braden Holtby, John Carlson, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie and Matt Niskanen, among others. "It’s been my goal for last two years."
Washington's 13th overall pick in 2014, Vrana is entering a window in which it’s reasonable to expect him to make his NHL debut. Nine of the 12 players selected before Vrana, in fact, have already made their NHL debuts. Six of them had full-time roles last season.
The question for Vrana, it seems, is when he’ll add his name to that list and how long he’ll stick in Washington.
"I know what I need to get better," the 20-year-old said, "and I work on it."
Indeed, after taking some off following a long playoff run with Hershey, Vrana hit the gym, bulking up from 187 pounds to 198.
As for the other necessary improvements, those are of the tactical variety—attention to detail in the defensive zone, toughness around the net and consistency. The last one is often the most difficult one for prospects to attain, and he said it's going to be his primary focus next month.
"Last year, I would say defending the zone [was the biggest weakness], but I feel like I got a lot better," Vrana said, checking off his to-do list. "The thing is, you get better in defensive zone, but you got to prove it every game. You got to show every game you’re good in defensive zone. That’s my goal. I can be good in defensive game, five games out of seven. But you got to be good every game."
Last season got off to a difficult start for Vrana, who underwent wrist surgery in November and missed three months of the Bears’ season. Upon returning, the left-shot sniper was almost a point-per-game player, notching 16 goals and 34 points in 36 contests. He was productive in the Calder Cup playoffs, too, amassing eight goals and six assists in 21 games.
"It was a good season," Vrana said. "We went to the finals. Obviously we didn’t finish it. But it was good experience for me. I feel really good right now. Just going to see what happen, you know?"
With 13 forwards already on the NHL roster, making the team out of training camp is a long shot for Vrana. In reality, he’s likely jockeying with other prospects for pole position on the call-up list until a full-time job opens up next summer. Still, he’s determined not to allow a daunting depth chart to influence his mindset entering camp.
"There’s lots of talent on the team," Vrana acknowledged. "There’s the guys who been very experienced, who won Stanley Cups. And there’s some experienced guys who been in this league for a few years already. The hard work is going to decide who is going to be in the team. It’s my plan to do that. We will see how the organization is going to look on that."
Whatever happens next month, this much is already clear: Vrana is close and he's enjoying the journey.
"You just going to do your job. Job? I mean, job you like,” Vrana said, correcting himself with a smile. “I don’t want to call it a job. I love it. You don’t want to really give them options. Show them you’re ready; no other option."