It was no different for me, personally. I had the pleasure of following and tracking the effervescent young Czech since his draft day back in 2014, following him through each and every game in Hershey, each and every international game during his stints on the Czech National team, and of course, through each and every game with the Capitals. I enjoyed following his journey every step along the way.
As for his game, Vrana flashed moments of brilliance and was seemingly unstoppable on certain nights. Vrana posted consistent numbers under Todd Reirden, roughly 25 goals and 25 assists in each of the two seasons, and in a normalized season (82 games instead of 56), he was on track to possibly repeat the pace this season.
But there were issues.
Part of me was sure that Vrana’s time in D.C. was running out following his overtime winner on March 9 against the Devils and his subsequent stare-down of new head coach Peter Laviolette. Vrana was benched earlier in the game, and the overtime winner and stare down appeared to be a big middle finger to Laviolette.
Jakub Vrana…. ssssss’fast!!!! pic.twitter.com/lxsKAYIBx8
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) March 10, 2021
He was staring and skating straight towards Laviolette, and might have made it to him if it wasn’t for fellow Czech Richard Panik’s road block. Vrana pushed it too far. You can’t publicly show-up and undermine the boss and not expect repercussions.
But days slipped by and like the rest of Caps nation, I swept it aside as a minor player revolt and moved on. In reality, Jake would never the same as the writing was drying on the wall. Little did we know his overtime game-winner would be the next to last goal scored by Vrana in a Capitals uniform.
Vrana’s issues are well documented and serve as road markers along his career path. He was benched under Troy Mann in Hershey, benched during a recent stint for the Czech Republic national team (he still doesn’t do interviews with Czech media), and of course he was benched under Barry Trotz, Todd Reirden and Peter Laviolette during his time with the Capitals. The history is well-documented and ever-present with Vrana. If you search “Vrana Scratch” on our site, the returned list of articles is, unfortunately, quite extensive.
What was the end result of those benchings? It’s hard to say, but in the end, Vrana is in now in Detroit. And that’s that.
In the week since the deal, I’ve had some time to digest the events in a big-picture sense, which left me wondering a little more about the player-coach relationship and the overall long-term value of each individual to an organization. It begs the question – who holds more weight over the long term, the player or the coach?
According to research by Peter Tanner conducted for FiveThirtyEight a few years ago, the average NHL head coaching job lasts for 2.4 seasons, which was roughly the same as the average for the NBA (2.3), but much shorter than the typical coaching tenures in the NFL (3.6) and MLB (3.8).
2.4 seasons is not a long time. Players outlast coaches all the time. So when does a decision by a coach outweigh the value of the player? Enter, Jakub Vrana.
Hypothetically, if Connor McMichael secures a spot on the roster next fall and has issues with Laviolette, would he be dealt? I would hope not. This tells us there is indeed a dividing line somewhere, at some location, that says the player holds more value than the coach, as it should be. Only Brian MacLellan knows where the line actually resides and he gets to place the line and ultimately judge the violations as well.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Vrana trade was necessary, for many reasons, and in the end, it had to be done for financial reasons as well. Vrana will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this offseason, and he is now armed with good (expensive) player comparables (comps) for his almost-certain arbitration hearing coming up this summer. He’s gonna get paid, and he’s earned every penny he gets. The Capitals just found the price tag and behavioral baggage too much of a package deal to consume.
For the Capitals, they received relatively inexpensive offensive production out of Vrana during his tenure in the District. He had an $833,333 cap hit from 2016 to 2019, a huge bargain and a major reason why the Capitals were able to pay their core players the little extra they wanted. But more importantly, he was a part of the reason why the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018.
Jake is a good kid, who just has issues with authority (same here). In the end, when the postseason begins and a series is on the line, I’d have him in my lineup 10 games out of 10. The challenge for any coach is how to lead and inspire him in the less-meaningful parts of the season. No coach has truly succeeded in that part, so far.
So life after Jakub is upon us. The actual winners and losers of the trade won’t be decided for a few years to come. Vrana will likely be scoring goals and racking up points long after Laviolette leaves the district, with or without his championship ring, and the hockey world will move on, just like we do right now.
The only thing really certain at this point is that it was a true pleasure covering the charismatic kid from the Czech Republic. The best of luck in Motor City, Jakub.
By Jon Sorensen