When Washington Capitals forward Jakub Vrana started playing hockey at a young age, he didn’t follow the NHL too closely growing up in the Czech Republic. However, as he got older, he became more invested in learning more about the league, and soon after, a dream was set in stone: to play in the National Hockey League.
“I started to look up NHL when I was older and Stanley Cup is best you can win,” Vrana said. “Especially with this group of guys and this organization, it’s something special.”
The 22-year-old’s aspirations came true when his team finally exorcised their 44-year-old demons with a Game 5 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights, thanks in part to a crucial breakaway goal he scored early on.
As he looks back at the Stanley Cup victory, Vrana had his share of struggles throughout the season and at the start of the year, he was a bit of question mark. However, ultimately, his rookie season was a success, culminating with his performance in the playoffs.
“I think he did a great job,” linemate Brett Connolly said. “Throughout the playoffs, he was just generating scoring chances every day. I think with a little puck luck he would have scored a lot more just with the way he was getting himself the opportunities.”
Vrana Rises Above Woes
Heading into training camp, it was clear that Vrana would be the one to make the jump to the NHL, to fill the voids on the forward lines with the departure of Marcus Johansson and company. He’d been a top scorer and producer in Hershey and even early on, was considered to vie for a role on the top-6. He made the opening night roster and came in with confidence, registering three points in his first two games of the year.
However, from that point forward, he started to experience some inconsistency. Then, after scoring a goal Dec. 14 against Boston, Vrana would go 25 games without a goal, struggling as he was unable to find the back of the net or generate much production. This led to a few scratches along the way until he finally shook the monkey off his back and scored in the Stadium Series matchup against Toronto in March.
“It’s a big relief,” Vrana said. “You just have to keep going, get some confidence from that and keep going in next games.”
After that, he had a stretch where he showed some offensive prowess but went without a point in his final six games of the season. He finished the year with 13 goals and 27 points through 73 games. While the results weren’t there, it wasn’t for a lack of trying, and Vrana persisted and continued to develop and evolve his game as time went on, leading to more scoring chances.
“I think just it’s hard work,” Vrana said. “You know, you just got to keep working hard and doing extra things.”
Heading into the postseason, Vrana was ready to try and find his touch. But for Game 2 of the first round series against Columbus, Vrana found himself a healthy scratch once again. Still, he ultimately rebounded, finding some chemistry alongside Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie before playing with Connolly and Lars Eller.
While he only finished the playoffs with just three goals and eight points through 23 games, he generated plenty of scoring chances and was a danger in the offensive zone. He also scored at crucial times, most importantly in Game 5 after going 12 games without a goal.
“Playoff for me wasn’t great,” Vrana said. “I just tried to control what I can control and that’s to play hockey the best I can. I got a chance after that, and I feel I respond to chance that I have and I focus on things I have to do.”
As he heads back to the Czech Republic for the summer, Vrana returns home a Stanley Cup champion and a rookie that overcame all the obstacles in his way to cap off a solid first year. For the summer, Vrana said he plans to bring the Cup back home to where he started playing, but his mind is months ahead, focused on doing it all again next season.
“I already can’t wait to see these guys again,” Vrana said. “I’m excited to see them again at training camp. It’s been a fun year, a great year for me, first year. I had a great experience. I just have to make sure I come prepared next year.”