In 2014, the Capitals selected Jakub Vrana 13th overall in the NHL Draft, banking on his potential as a top-line forward. In 2017, the Caps will need him to take the next step in his progression of living up to that potential.
No, the Caps are not relying on Vrana to be a top-line forward in the upcoming season, but with top free agents expected to leave Washington, the Caps will need more contributions from their young players. Of the young players who the team needs to contribute next season, you can put Vrana’s name at or near the top of that list.
On a conference call with reporters on Monday, assistant general manager Ross Mahoney was asked about which of the team’s prospects he considered NHL ready. Vrana was one of two players Mahoney mentioned specifically. Perhaps that should come as no surprise considering Vrana played 21 games with the Caps last season, but it does reflect the team’s expectation that he will be in the Caps’ lineup next this fall. He just has to earns his spot.
“It’s really up to those players to come in and to impress the coaches during training camp and the exhibition season and try to win a spot on the big club,” Mahoney said. “It's up to them. It's just going to depend on what they do off the ice and on the ice during the offseason here and come to camp and try to win a spot.”
Earning that spot will be vitally important for Vrana. With the potential loss of T.J. Oshie and the 33 goals he scored last season, not only does the team need Vrana to earn a spot in the lineup, but he needs it from an individual standpoint as well.
Vrana has reached a critical juncture in his career. He is now at the point where he is expected to make the transition from AHL to NHL. That is reflected in the fact that Vrana will not be at the team’s development camp taking place at the end of June. It is also due to the fact that Vrana may not be as focused in the AHL as the team needs him to be.
Vrana’s 2016-17 season was a tumultuous one. After being sent back down to Hershey from the Caps, he seemed to struggle with his focus at the AHL level and was at times scratched from the lineup by Bears head coach Troy Mann.
“I think sometimes younger guys, they have to just focus on getting better every day and being very consistent with their play and that'll help them,” Mahoney said. “A lot of times they start maybe thinking of too many things rather than just concentrating on that day and the next day and being consistent with their effort.”
Mahoney made clear he thought there was a “very big upside” for Vrana, but his issues in the AHL reflect just how critical this offseason will be for the Czech winger.
At 21 years old, he is still a young player, but it appears he has eyes for just the NHL. If he does not make the Capitals’ roster out of training camp, it seems fair to wonder if the AHL is even an option at this point. If he cannot focus in Hershey because he wants to be in the NHL, there is no benefit to sending him there. But, if he does not prove himself in training camp, could Vrana’s NHL future lie with another team?
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