Capitals Trade Vrana After Several Chances to Shine

The 2021 NHL Trade Deadline ended with a bang, courtesy of Brian MacLellan. Shortly after trading for Philadelphia Flyers’ winger Michael Raffl, the Washington Capitals acquired Anthony Mantha from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Jakub Vrana, Richard Panik, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2022 second-round pick.

Anthony Mantha Detroit Red Wings
Anthony Mantha, former Red Wing (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Mantha, a big body at 6-foot-5, 234 pounds, was drafted 20th overall by Detroit in 2013 and broke into the league in 2016-17. During his tenure, the 26-year old Quebec native accumulated 95 goals and 99 assists in 302 games for a Red Wings organization that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2015-16. At the time of the trade, Mantha was leading the team in goals and one point behind the top spot. The rebuilding Red Wings are currently sitting last in the Central Division, with the sixth-fewest points in the league, and the third-fewest goals scored.

Dissecting the Trade

The three other East Division teams currently holding playoff spots each caught big fish at the deadline. The New York Islanders landed Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac, the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired Jeff Carter, and the Boston Bruins were the winners of the Taylor Hall sweepstakes. The Capitals’ front office was under serious pressure to make a big move. Many of the initial reactions around D.C. have been outraged at the haul given up for Mantha, but it’s a move that makes the team better now and sets them up for success in the future.

At first glance, four assets certainly seem like a massive overpayment for one player, but it’s a bit more complex than that. It’s helpful to look at this transaction as two separate trades. Essentially, the Capitals gave up Vrana and the first-rounder for Mantha and sent Detroit a second-rounder in exchange for taking on Richard Panik’s contract. And for those who still think Washington overpaid with the draft stock, how important is pick number twenty-something in a relatively quiet draft when the Stanley Cup window is only open for around three more years?

Vrana Became Expendable

Vrana is in the final year of his two-year bridge deal that pays him $3.35 million annually. A pending restricted free agent, the young Czech is due for a significant raise with a longer-term. With the need to re-sign Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Samsonov this offseason, Vrana would have had to really make it worth the front office’s while. The speedy 25-year old showed flashes of stardom and the potential to be a 40-goal scorer in the NHL. But the keyword in there is “flashes.”

Jakub Vrana Washington Capitals
Jakub Vrana (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

“Jake-the-Snake” was supposed to be Andre Burakovsky‘s replacement, but similar issues derailed Vrana’s tenure in the District: streaky and inconsistent goal-scoring, lack of production in the postseason, and ineffective play off the puck. He went a full month, 13 games between goals at one point this season. And since the Capitals’ Game Five Stanley Cup Final victory, he has tallied zero points in the playoffs. The uninspired defensive play was the main reason behind his decline in playing time, and eventually his two-game benching in early April. Coach Laviolette hinted at it when asked about the decision:

“We’ve had many conversations just about his play with regard to the competitiveness of it and the speed of it. He is a very skilled player but there are other aspects of the game that are very important. We’re looking for a higher level of play.”

Capitals’ Jakub Vrana Healthy Scratch For Second Straight Game, DC Sports King, 04/04/2021

Attitude problems have also reportedly been an issue throughout Vrana’s career. Former Capital Alan May said on a Capitals pregame show broadcast last week, “Jake is a kid that in the American Hockey League, he struggled with some criticism when he got there. They had some attitude problems when he was there.” And it’s no secret that he and Laviolette didn’t see eye to eye. Well, except for when Vrana literally stared down his head coach after an OT goal against the Devils.

Laviolette isn’t the first coach to reduce Vrana’s minutes at the professional level. He has also been benched by Todd Reirden, Barry Trotz, Troy Mann of the Hershey Bears, as well as during the 2019 World Championship. He is only 25 years old, and he has a new chance to rewrite the current narrative and turn his career around. But if he isn’t able to, Jeff Blashill could be the next coach on that list.

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