Jakub Vrana is an interesting prospect on many levels. Taken 13th overall in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft by the Capitals, the smallish winger was touted for his high-end speed and great shot.
After spending one more year in Sweden, Vrana came over in the 2015-2016 season for the Capitals’ AHL affiliate Hershey Bears. While there he was exceeding expectations, putting up 55 points in 57 games played, before finally being called up to the NHL this past season. While with the Caps, he looked really good despite only putting up six points in 21 games played. It was when he was sent back down to the AHL that problems began to arise.
Before he was recalled by the Caps, his 55 points in 57 games amounted to 0.96 points per game, but when he was sent back down, he finished the rest of the season averaging 0.64 points per game (with one more call-up in between). This drop in point production drew a lot of ire from Hershey head coach Troy Mann. He called out Vrana for not playing a two-way game and not being focused. What a lot of people don’t realize is this happens often with young talent once they go from the NHL to the AHL. They can’t stay focused because their main focus is returning to the NHL permanently. No one should condone this attitude, but it’s not uncommon. Higher-profile names such as Anthony Duclair, Josh Ho-Sang, and even Jonathan Drouin went through the same thing. They were called out because their attitude wasn’t great in the AHL, but not one team wouldn’t want them on their team right now. Even Andre Burakovsky had the same attitude, but it doesn’t mean the player is forever going to be supposedly lazy. Vrana is young and will learn to get his head straight.
To add to the “poor defensively” argument, some fans say Vrana is too soft and plays perimeter hockey. That confused me, because I remember watching him with the Caps when he played a complete game and was quite physical. So I decided to go back and watch a handful of games in which Vrana played. I ended up picking six random games from the 21 games that he appeared in. Whenever he was on the ice, I watched him very closely to find some type of evidence of him being good defensively and physical. Honestly, I thought I would only find maybe one or two examples a game, but I found far more than I expected. Below I provide 24 examples of Vrana’s complete play and this was maybe half of them. I started with over 50 gifs, but out of respect for your computer’s drive I had to keep whittling down the number until everything ran smoothly. So, I don’t think these were the only instances he was showing off his all-around game.
Vrana is to the left, exactly where he should be, in the slot covering any players that might want to get in there and take a shot, and that’s exactly what happens. Evander Kane, arguably one of the league’s best shooters, corrals the puck, but because Vrana is in position, he is able to force Kane to backhand a weak shot instead of turning and shooting. Also, he has a nice kick from skate to stick for extra flair.
Here Vrana does a great job tracking Matt Moulson deep and close to the net until he realizes Kuznetsov has him, so then he goes after the puck. He uses his quickness to get out to the blueline to block a shot.
The question one would ask his critics – Shouldn’t Vrana be hanging out by the blueline because he doesn’t know what he’s doing in his own end? If he was lazy and wasn’t coming back, he wouldn’t have gotten his stick on Ryan O’Reilly’s pass which would have gone right to Kyle Okposo for a great scoring chance. He was below the dots!
Once again, Vrana shows proper positioning. He doesn’t over commit to the shooter in the slot because Dmitry Orlov is there, but he is patient waiting for a pass across the ice. He’s then able to use his speed to cut down the gap on the Boston defender to force a quick turning shot instead of giving him time to line up a better shot.
This is similar to the last example, but with less action. I think it’s really important to show Vrana’s defensive smarts. If a young player didn’t know what he was doing, he would just sit there and hope. Watch Vrana’s head, it’s on a swivel, he stays close to his man, but he also keeps an eye on the players around him. With all the talk about him being bad defensively, he certainly doesn’t show it.
Vrana starts out in this clip back-checking and connecting a hit in the neutral zone. He forces a pass that still ends up in the defensive zone, but look at what happens when the puck goes around the boards. Both Kuznetsov and Burakovsky start to head back out of the zone, but Vrana thankfully doesn’t. His awareness of Brian Gionta in front of the net saves a good scoring chance against. Watch how he identifies the threat, then he jets forward to break up the play. Even Capitals TV Play-by-Play announcer, Joe Beninati, inserted how Vrana was good defensively in this situation.
Vrana is the first forward back in this example. He even goes below the goal line to give John Carlson a safer pass instead of throwing it up the wall where puck possession is often lost. The pass was a bit too hard, but it shows that Vrana doesn’t just hang out at the top of the blue waiting to get the puck.
This is a nice little sequence for Vrana. He starts off by back-checking on an odd-man rush to break up a chance for someone in front of the net. He even tries to play some goalie! Then he gets on his high horse to get in on a three-on-two break the other way. He is able to get a shot off, then he hustles back again to break up a short two-on-one and retrieve the puck.
One thing a defensive player always looks for in a system and teammate is knowing that if he pinches he’ll have someone to get his back. Here Nate Schmidt wanted to jump up into the neutral zone to check someone and trusted the young kid Vrana enough to get his back and that’s exactly what Vrana did. He was the first one back and recovered the puck from the defensive zone to help get it out. Add trustworthy and reliable to Vrana’s resume.
Again, Vrana shows he isn’t a player that is out there just for the offense. As soon as he sees the Caps are about to lose the puck, he goes high speed on his back check to slow down Charlie Coyle giving time for his teammates to get back and Niskanen can push him to the outside.
Net Front Presence
Here we have not one, but two, “soft Europeans” getting to the net to screen the goalie, both Vrana and Burakovsky. The best thing about Vrana doing it is, after he screens the goalie, he finds a soft spot to get a nice shot off. The more he does this the more he’ll score.
Here’s another great all-around sequence for Vrana. First, he parks himself in front of the net, tying up a defender so when Lars Eller comes busting off the wall towards the net the defender can’t get to Eller, so Eller gets a good scoring chance. Then, Vrana chases down the puck, wins a board battle, and gets out to the blue line before going back to the net receiving the puck to get a good scoring chance himself before being knocked down paying the price. Impressive.
Vrana losses the puck here while streaking down the side, but he doesn’t just sit around waiting for the puck to come back to him. He goes straight to the front of the net, not staying away from getting to the tougher areas.
If I could totally black out players and have you guess which player was Vrana, I highly doubt most would choose the player in front of the net taking cross check after cross check and not moving an inch. He stayed there knowing what would happen, but he also knows that’s where you need to go to score. He nearly does just that! This gif was already too long, but after this play he gets into a punch match with a Dallas player. The kid is not scared.
Vrana has every chance to just give up once he losses the puck, but he puts a body into the opposing player allowing his reinforcements to get the puck and get it out of the zone. He’s not a very passive player.
A little context here: Cody Franson is a bruising blueliner clocking in at 6’5″ 224 pounds! Obviously Vrana can’t do much, but he doesn’t back down at all. He even has some choice words for Franson as if he’s asking him to fight. Have to love that attitude.
This example doesn’t exactly show physical abilities in terms of hits, but Vrana is like white on rice hunting down the puck. The defenseman he’s hounding is Nikita Tryamkin a 6’7″ (!!!) 265 lb (!!!) player. Vrana doesn’t lay off him for a second and he is able to steal the puck and get it to an open player. Very impressive!
Vrana starts off this play by creatively kicking the puck to his stick and shifting into the slot for a shot that barely misses the net. It also shows his physicality, as he takes a hit in the back from one of the roughest players in 6’3″, 221 lbs, David Backes. Vrana picks himself right back up and circles back around to hit Backes head on. He bounces off him like a beach ball, but that doesn’t change the fact that Vrana is in no way scared of getting physical.
I found this little interaction interesting, because it’s Vrana hustling to the puck and using his body to protect the puck from Tyler Graovac. He’s a massive center coming in at 6’5″ and 212 lbs and Vrana had no problem going after him and stealing the puck. His hustle resulted in a good scoring chance for his team and the rebound almost went right to him for a tap in, all because he went to the net.
This is one of my favorite clips of Vrana as he shows a bit of everything. He is able to gather the puck and release his deadly shot that just misses above the net. He doesn’t just give up after he misses, he hustles to the loose puck against the boards, takes a hit to help get it back to the point,and goes right to the front of the net where a rebound just bounces over his stick or it’s a tap in goal.
Here Vrana shows off his speed. He goes wide, behind the net, keeping the defender away from the puck and gets it to the point for a Carlson blast. Look what he does once he passes the puck – he takes a hit and proceeds right to the front of the net. If a rebound would have been kicked out, he would have had a goal.
Vrana may be a small player, but he has a blast of a shot that he proves here. If it wasn’t for a great save by a great goalie, he would have scored. In Hershey he plays opposite side of Ovi at the left circle and uses his wicked slapper to put pucks in the net.
Vrana will be one of, if not the, fastest players on the Caps once he fully makes the team. Here he shows his speed and strength splitting between two defensive players to get a good scoring chance. One of those players is Luca Sbisa, a 6’2″ 210 lb player. If he wasn’t interfered with, he probably would have scored.
The thing I noticed most about Vrana offensively is he’s very good at finding soft spots in the ice to get a great shot off. I counted at least 5 times it happened. He shows off that skill here receiving a pass from Eller and barely missing. He also, once again, proves his defensive prowess by breaking up a play by back checking which results in the puck headed back into the offensive zone. Vrana gets the puck again, dishes it to Bura, then heads to the head without fear. Good sequence at both ends for the young Czech.
After watching his hustle and tenacity for just six games, I was even more impressed with Vrana than the first time seeing him hit the ice back in December. Imagine what else he did in the other 15 games. If this article isn’t enough to prove Vrana is more than ready for the NHL, I suggest any critic go back and watch all the games he played and try to counter it. This year could be a big year for the young winger as the Caps have lost both Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson. He could see a lot of Top 9 time to prove, not only his high-end offensive skills but, his reliable defensive game.
By Luke Adomanis