As we get set to return from the All-Star break, the Washington Capitals find themselves atop the NHL standings and are primed for another run at the Stanley Cup. Among the top storylines for the team this season has been the emergence of fourth-year winger Jakub Vrana.
The Caps forward has 22 goals and 18 assists on the year and is on pace to set career highs across the board. This substantial jump in numbers is due in large part to Vrana’s work at even strength. While most premier scorers are aided by marquee minutes on their team’s top power-play unit, “Jake the Snake” has done his damage almost exclusively at 5-on-5 this season.
Even Strength Dominance
The Czech winger has scored 21 of his 22 goals at even strength and currently ranks third in the NHL in 5-on-5 goals alongside David Pastrnak, Nathan MacKinnon, and Jack Eichel, three men who find themselves in the Hart Trophy conversation. Only Alex Ovechkin and Auston Matthews had more even-strength goals entering the break. Vrana has also tallied 32 of his 40 points at even strength and is among the top-40 in the league when it comes to shots on goal. His 22 goals rank second on the team behind Ovechkin and his $3.35 million cap hit is one of the best bargains in the Eastern Conference.
Vrana’s strong numbers don’t appear to be an illusion either. His 15.8 shooting percentage is just 2.5 percent above his career-high and shouldn’t be in danger of a major regression in the second half. Vrana has averaged just under 15 minutes of ice time per night this season, slightly up from a year ago, but is firing pucks on net a much higher clip than he was during his first three seasons in the league.
After averaging under two shots a game last season, Vrana is peppering the opposition with 2.83 shots per game this year. These factors, along with an increase in confidence and growing chemistry with linemates T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov, have led to the breakout campaign that the young winger is currently enjoying.
Vrana’s breakout has not gone unnoticed by head coach Todd Reirden. It took until the second week of January but the Caps bench boss has rewarded Vrana with a promotion to Washington’s top power-play unit. Reirden shuffled Kuznetsov out in favor of Vrana as he looks to get a bit more juice out of a power play that currently ranks 14th in the league.
Vrana paid his coach back right away, scoring on the man advantage the next game out. If the young winger continues to get more ice-time with the big guns on the top unit and is able to make it a new dimension of his game he should have no problem hitting the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career. His lethal shot has the potential to not only give the unit another trigger man but also open things up for more one-timers from Ovechkin and John Carlson.
Climbing the Ranks
Washington selected Vrana with the 13th overall pick back in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft. After marinating in the American Hockey League with the Hershey Bears for a few years, Vrana finally joined the big club during the 2016-17 campaign. Many players from his draft class were well into their NHL careers by then, while Vrana was still finding his footing in the world’s best league. Fast-forward a couple of years and Vrana finds himself quickly climbing the ranks among his peers.
Vrana currently ranks 10th in goals and 14th in points among members of the 2014 class, despite playing significantly fewer games than those listed ahead of him. Leon Draisaitl and Pastrnak remain the cream of the 2014 crop but Vrana has provided the Capitals with great value at No. 13 overall. At just 23 years of age, Vrana still has plenty of room to grow and appears to be just scratching the surface of his offensive potential.
The Capitals already boasted one of the league’s deepest units up front entering the season but Vrana’s emergence has taken Washington’s top six to another level. If he can help solidify the team’s power play in the second half, then the sky is the limit for a Caps team that is looking to lock down a fifth-straight Metropolitan Division title and recapture the postseason magic that they discovered two springs ago.