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Breakthrough Year

Jakub Vrana's skillset and work ethic has helped him develop into a consistent threat for the Caps

by Ben Raby @benraby31 /

As NHL teams continue to place a premium on speed and the ability to quickly transition up ice, the Capitals believe they have a gem in Jakub Vrana.

"I think we're just starting to see what he can do in the NHL," says general manager Brian MacLellan.

Vrana is in his second full NHL season and the 23-year-old has already established himself as one of the League's best skaters. The ability to turn on the jets and to create separation are among Vrana's biggest assets. His knack for finishing and making good on his scoring opportunities have allowed him to become a fixture among Washington's top-six forwards.

"You think he's not coming," says frequent linemate T.J. Oshie, "and then all of a sudden he pours it on and gets himself a breakaway and creates chances strictly out of his effort and his legs."

While Vrana has impressed with his ability to create quickly, his play throughout the year has hardly come in spurts. A case could actually be made that Vrana has been among the Capitals' most consistent players this season.

Fighting off any potential lulls and maintaining a high-level of play over the course of a grueling 82-game regular season can be a challenge even for savvy veterans let alone for a player in his early 20s.

Vrana, though, seems to have cracked the code. Coaches and teammates point to his work ethic and an admirable dedication to his craft.

"V has that drive that you see in players that are successful across the NHL," says Brooks Orpik. "He's always one of the last off the ice at practice, he's always on the ice at optional [practices], he just wants to be at the top of his game, and I think that has helped him be consistent."

Along with Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov, Vrana is one of three ironmen to have appeared in all 70 games this season (through Wednesday). Along the way, Vrana has hit career highs with 21 goals and 43 points. He is the youngest Capitals player to hit the 20-goal plateau since a then 22-year-old Nicklas Backstrom hit the mark in 2009-10.

"We're just starting with this player," says head coach Todd Reirden. "I feel like this has been the biggest jump that he's made in his overall play, and I look forward to seeing that progress here as we get further along into the season and then into some playoff hockey and then future years with this guy as a Capital."

Not only is Vrana putting up numbers this season, but the bulk of that production has come at even-strength. Vrana's 20 even-strength goals and 39 even-strength points are both tops in the NHL among all players averaging fewer than 16 minutes per game (Vrana is skating 14:09 per game).

Vrana has spent much of the year playing on a line with Oshie and Backstrom. That's good work if you can find it, but it also makes for some demanding nights at the office.

Because Backstrom's trio is frequently tasked with shutting down the opposition's top line, Vrana has seen plenty of defensive responsibilities and defensive-zone starts. In last Sunday's 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets, the Vrana-Backstrom-Oshie trio was primarily tasked with shutting down Winnipeg's top-line of Patrick Laine, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.

"I've liked his overall game," Reirden says of Vrana. "I don't have any troubles at all having him out there against other teams' top players, playing with Nick and T.J., who are really defensively responsible. They've done a great job of mentoring and helping him with the overall importance of the all-around game."

While Vrana's speed can create highlights with the puck, those plays are possible in part due to Vrana's positioning and his play in his own end.

"He has so much speed that, if he continues to come into the defensive zone and stop in the right spot, he's going to end up [forcing turnovers] and getting the puck with some space," Reirden says. Then, he becomes real dangerous."

Teammates acknowledge that Vrana is often in the right place at the right and Oshie says that Vrana has been a quick study.

"V is a very smart player," he explains. "[He] plays the game with a lot of passion and he has a willingness to learn, and I think that's helped him adjust quickly. He's fun to play with because you see that ability to want to improve in his game and in the way he trains. He plays with a lot of speed, and that's becoming an important aspect of the game."

Tom Wilson puts it succinctly: "He's a world-class skater. You trust he's going to win any race."

In a mid-February win in Los Angeles, Alex Ovechkin garnered the headlines with a pair of power-play goals, but it was Vrana who used his wheels to win one-on-one battles and draw each of those man-advantage opportunities.

When the coaching staff conducts its postgame evaluations of individual players, speed is the first factor they consider with Vrana: Was speed a factor for him in the game?

"He gets away one-on-one in different situations," Reirden says, "and between Backstrom and Oshie doing such a good job getting him pucks so that he can isolate people and then use his speed, we think a lot of Vrana and his upside and he's getting more comfortable taking on defenders. He can be a very difficult guy to defend against."

Naturally, Vrana also has reason to be playing with plenty of confidence this season. After battling the ebbs and flows of his rookie season last year - complete with a 25-game goalless drought - Vrana went from being a healthy scratch in Washington's first-round series against Columbus, to skating alongside Backstrom and Oshie in both the Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup Finals.

"After last year," Vrana says, "it's nice to settle in. I feel comfortable with these guys. We have a great group. It's not that hard to settle in with this group, everyone is helping out which is really important so I definitely feel more comfortable."

While Vrana's play gradually improved as the stakes got higher last spring, he has seemingly picked up where he left off and continued to grow his game.

The Capitals' first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft is slated to become a restricted free agent this summer, but MacLellan says the team is open to signing him to a long-term extension.

"It's a big priority," MacLellan says. "I think since we drafted him, he's been a big priority… I think as he's got more comfortable with playing in traffic, playing a physical game, how he could manage that part of it, I think he's gotten better and better."

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