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Jakub Vrana was taken by the Capitals in the first round (13th overall) in 2014. Now that he has 45 career games under his belt, how does he compare with other recent Caps forwards who were taken in the first round? Marcus Johansson was taken 24th overall in 2009, Evgeny Kuznetsov was taken 26th overall in 2010, and Andre Burakovsky was taken 23rd overall in 2013. These players have turned out to be difference makers for the Capitals and have backed up their case for why the Capitals chose them. Can Vrana do the same, or even better?
Marcus Johansson was the first player to make his debut among this list of players. He turned out to be a very good player for the Capitals, playing a huge part of the power play that has been successful for a number of years now. Through his first 25 games, he got off to the slowest start of the four players. He only recorded six points, half of which were goals, a -5 +/- rating, and no power play points. Johansson took a while to find his game in the NHL, scoring only one goal in his first 10 games. He got scratched for 10 games and went through an 8-game point drought at one point during that stretch. He may have started out slow, but he turned into quite the hockey player, scoring 40+ points in five out of the next six seasons (the one season he fell short of that mark was the lock-out season). The Capitals traded him to the New Jersey Devils to relieve salary cap pressure after big extensions for T.J. Oshie, Dmitry Orlov, and Evgeny Kuznetsov during the offseason.
Evgeny Kuznetsov was drafted in 2010 but did not make his NHL debut until March 10, 2014. There was talk that the Capitals should have traded his rights rather than wait for his move to the NHL. He ended the 2013-14 season scoring 3 goals and 9 points in 17 games. His first career multi-assist game when he tallied three helpers on March 14 against the Vancouver Canucks. He had a slow start to the 2014-15 season, notching only three assists in his first eight games. He was a -2 in his first 20 NHL games, with a third of his points coming on the power play. In addition, his first career goal was a short-handed goal. He struggled to score at even strength. Despite the slow start to his NHL career, he shined in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs when he scored 5 goals and 10 points, including the game-winning goal in Game 7 against the Islanders in Round 1 that Spring. He followed that coming-out party by leading the Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals with 77 points during the 2015-16 season and was 9th in the NHL in points and fourth in assists (57). The Capitals locked him up to a massive 8-year contract extension worth $62.4 million over the summer, making him the second-highest paid player on the team. Overall, Kuznetsov seems like a steal at 26th overall, and he was definitely worth the wait.
Andre Burakovsky made his mark with a strong preseason during the 2014-2015 season with two goals and four points. The four points tied second on the Capitals’ preseason scoring leaders. Burakovsky made the Capitals’ opening night roster as a 19-year old and got off to the fastest start among the three players. He came out of the gates hot, getting a point in his first four NHL games and averaging a point per game in his first six, which included two goals. Through the first quarter of the season, Burakovsky had four goals, 13 points, three power-play points, two power-play goals, and a +1 rating. Throughout his young career, Burakovsky has struggled with consistency, following hot scoring streaks with long scoring droughts. He finished his rookie season with a +15 rating, which was good for third on the Capitals. His production tailed off after his fast start and he finished with 9 goals and 22 points in 53 games but was arguably the best rookie of the three. If he had played a full season, he was on pace to finish with 14 goals and 34 points. That would’ve been five points shy of the numbers from the Calder Trophy winner, Florida Panthers’ defenseman Aaron Ekblad that season.
Out of all of those four players, Jakub Vrana looks like he has had the fastest start out of any of the four. He registered three goals and six points through his first 21 career NHL games last season, and he has seven goals and 11 points through 24 games this season. That leads Capitals rookies in goals and is two short from Burakovsky’s total when he was a rookie. While Vrana has also struggled to be consistent, he seems to have found a home on the Capitals’ second line next to Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie, scoring three goals in his last three games. He recently had his first career multi-goal game (2) against the Ottawa Senators in the Capitals’ 5-2 win on Wednesday. Though he was a healthy scratch in the Capitals’ game in Denver last week, Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, and Johansson were each healthy scratches at times when they first started out in the NHL.
Caps fans have high expectations for Vrana, and his transition to a full-time NHLer is going faster than Capitals rookies in the recent past.
By Harrison Brown