Is Jakub Vrana beginning to look like everything the Capitals hoped Andre Burakovsky would be? With the rumors that the Capitals are fielding offers for Burakovsky, speculation of his departure is becoming more and more justified. The Capitals have stated that they aren’t “actively” looking to shop the forward, but the word is out. And with Vrana producing on a consist basis, Burakovsky’s future is put into question more and more.
Unfortunately, Burakovsky is now the odd man out with 14 healthy forwards consuming the starting positions for the club, and was a healthy scratch for three straight games prior to the team’s last game against the Buffalo Sabres. Although plagued by injuries during his career so far, the once ultra-promising forward has come up short of expectations in his development and contributions to the team. At this point in the season, he has just five goals and eight points on the year. Not terrible, but not nearly what the organization was hoping for while he’s healthy. Despite his performance this season, Burakovsky had a fairly stable postseason last year, scoring two key goals in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, however, that performance has not carried over from last year.
What can be confusing, as well as frustrating, is the forwards’ decline over the past few years. By the end of the 2015-16 season, he had a staggering 38 points, which was a bright spot of hope for his career. The next season he had 35 points, which are great numbers for an upcoming young forward. However, with fewer games being played due to his injuries, that number dropped 10 points in 2017-18 and this year, the projected outcome for his season would be even less. Again, he has battled through multiple injuries that include a broken hand, which can be devastating to an offensive player such as himself. In his defense, a point can be made that he needs more time, but without a spot to give him, the Caps’ best option may be to let him develop elsewhere, especially if the team is in a “win now” state of mind.
Joining the Capitals at the ripe young age of 20, Vrana played 21 games with the team during the 2016-2017 campaign. He recorded three goals and three assists during that span, getting his proverbial NHL feet wet. The following year, he totaled 27 (13 goals, 14 assists) points in 73 games played, and scored a huge goal in the series-clinching Game 5 of the the Stanley Cup Final.
It seems as though the speedy forward has solidified his place in the lineup, and his numbers continue to improve. With 33 games played this year, he has 10 goals and nine assists, on pace to eclipse last year’s numbers by quite a margin. As Burakovsky continues to struggle to squeeze his way into a healthy lineup, Vrana has surpassed expectations, proving that he may be everything No. 65 was advertised to be. Perhaps with more playing time and a better situation, Burakovsky could break out like he seemed to be on the verge of doing a couple of seasons ago. The timetable for the Caps to wait on that is running out though, and with Vrana playing the way he is, the signs are pointing to a possible exit from Washington.
Vrana is usually one of the last to leave the ice during morning skates and practices. Additionally, he spends a great amount of time training in the offseason, bulking up and improving his game. He has put on significant weight in the past couple years, a great commodity for a player below the average height and weight in the NHL. Puck possession was a big issue for Burakovsky, easily knocked off the biscuit resulting in giveaways, and that part of his game has minimally improved. His strength on the puck is weak and although highly skilled, has trouble hitting the net as well. That’s not to say that Burakovsky doesn’t work as hard as Vrana, it’s that the results of that training are lopsided. Vrana has greatly progressed with both physical and mental strength. Combined with his natural speed and stick-handling ability, his value in the lineup has proven more useful to the Capitals. He’s got a lethal shot as well. Noticeable improvements in No. 13’s role with the Capitals have come to the forefront, and he continues to adjust to life in the NHL at a neck breaking pace.
When comparing other stats such as plus/minus, Burakovsky has never had a season in the negative, until now. He sits with a minus-5 while Vrana, having played fewer seasons, hasn’t finished a season below zero either. This year, Vrana boasts a healthy plus-11, and those numbers are expected to rise. He also isn’t as streaky as Burakovsky, injuries aside, and has presented a more consistent level of play for the Capitals. In today’s league, stability is a key attribute in keeping a spot in the lineup, something that has afflicted Burakovsky’s playing time throughout his career. Their shooting percentages are about the same, penalty minutes are too close to compare, but while Burakovsky’s time on ice numbers are way down, Vrana’s are steadily climbing. That alone is a gigantic indication of who they’d rather have playing, displaying more trust and sureness in Vrana. Neither of the two hold great value for physical play, nor will they ever, so those statistics are fairly minute.
It may disappoint many Caps fans to see Burakovsky, once thought of as a possible franchise player, on his way out of the city, but that’s professional hockey. Simply put, Vrana has outperformed Burakovsky in just about every way, making it harder and harder for the Capitals to hold a spot for Burakovsky. He doesn’t carry too much of a cap hit at $3.25 million a year and a cap hit of $3 million. For perspective, former Capital Jay Beagle signed a four-year deal with Vancouver for just $25,000 less yearly. This could be pretty attractive for a team that doesn’t want to spend much on a player that still has a ton of potential given the right opportunity. Vrana, still on an entry-level contract, is being paid less than $1 million a year. The Caps will have to pay to keep him after his current contract expires after this year, which will probably be around the same number, but his numbers justify that pay. Right now, Burakovsky and Vrana are essentially valued at their opposite’s contract. With professional hockey being a business, and in the business of winning, it makes more sense to keep Vrana around and let Burakovsky walk to hopefully flourish elsewhere.
As No. 13 continues to sustain his improvement, No. 65 is slowly dwindling away from the hopes of cracking the Top 6 on a consistent basis, let alone finding himself in the starting lineup. Simply put, it may just not be a good fit for the young, talented forward. With Vrana exceeding expectations, and delivering scoring power and speed to the Capitals roster, the writing is on the wall, and is becoming everything the team thought Burakovsky would be.
By Brennan Reidy