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Speedy Scorer

In the midst of a career year, Jakub Vrana is emerging as the best scorer the Capitals have drafted in the last decade

by Ben Raby @benraby31 / WashingtonCaps.com

Like his teammates, Capitals winger Jakub Vrana watches Alex Ovechkin and marvels at an artist who has mastered the craft.

"He loves scoring goals," Vrana says. "It's just in him. It's just part of his blood."

Scoring goals is also part of Vrana's DNA. And while nobody in the league can match the rate at which Ovechkin scores, Vrana has steadily emerged as a legitimate threat in his own right.

"The way he can play," says former Capitals sniper Peter Bondra, "it won't be long before he's getting 40 goals a year in the National Hockey League."

Vrana isn't there just yet, but he entered the stretch run this season within striking distance of his first career 30-goal campaign. Between his world-class speed, a lethal shot and a veteran-like work ethic, those around the Capitals organization see Vrana as a star in the making.

"I think we're just scratching the surface with this player," says head coach Todd Reirden.

Bondra is one of 45 players in League history to have scored 500 goals in his NHL career. He says he sees a lot of himself in Vrana.

"His skating, he makes it look [effortless], like he's floating," says Bondra, himself a two-time winner of the NHL's Fastest Skater Competition in the late 1990s. "He makes quick turns and he can lose a guy because his first two steps are so quick.

"He's got better hands than me, for sure. It's such a talented team here and he complements a lot of good things. I see myself a little bit with the skating capabilities. But at the same time, I think he's got more potential than me. Even he doesn't realize how much potential he has."

Bondra says that potential could be superstardom with the possibility of a 100-point season along the way. Bondra also lauds Vrana for being a sneaky good passer, a skillset that helped earn him a promotion to the No.1 power-play unit in January.

"It's a very bright future," Bondra says.

For now, few players around the league this season have been as economical with their ice time as Vrana. Consider that the 24-year-old is putting up career numbers despite relatively limited minutes for a player who has become a fixture in Washington's top six.

Through March 10, Vrana was the NHL's leading scorer among all players averaging fewer than 16 minutes per game (Vrana is skating 14:53 per game). Vrana leads the group in several categories including even-strength goals (24), points (52), game-winning goals (6) and shots on goal (187).

"There's a confidence, for sure," Vrana says, "but it has a lot to do with my [linemates] and the support and the pucks that they give to me too."

T.J. Oshie has been Vrana's most frequent linemate over the past three seasons, with either Nicklas Backstrom or Evgeny Kuznetsov slotted between them. Oshie is nearly 10 years Vrana's senior but the two have developed a unique bond that sometimes has a feel of a big-brother, little-brother relationship.

"It's been a great combination," Oshie says. "It's always been great playing with him. He always has a smile on his face, and so it has been great, especially this year. I mean, we played together for most of the Cup run, but especially this year, we've formed more of a bond and really enjoy playing with each ­other."

As a rookie, Vrana had 13 goals and 27 games in 73 games in 2017-18. But after battling the ebbs and flows that naturally come during a maiden campaign - Vrana also had a 25-game goalless drought - he showed tremendous growth and potential during the Capitals 2018 postseason.

That spring, 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.

Vrana solidified his spot in the top-six that spring and he's remained a reliable second-line left winger in the two years since. It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest the Capitals' first-round pick from the 2014 draft could be the club's best homegrown scorer in more than a decade.

"The big thing about Jake is that he's a speed player," says assistant coach Scott Arniel. "When he puts his speed on display, he's a whole different animal. When he uses his quickness, he's tough to handle. And you look at the lineup with [Carl] Hagelin and [Brendan] Leipsic and Tom [Wilson], we've got some speed in our lineup that we try to use to our advantage every night. When V does it, it's fun to watch."

Vrana has already established career-highs across the board with 25 goals, 27 assists and 52 points. He is also the youngest Capitals forward to record two consecutive 20-goal seasons since a then 22-year-old Backstrom pulled the feat in 2009-10.

"With his speed," Backstrom says, "he's one of those guys that can challenge D men, he can score, he can make things happen which is the most important thing. When he gets the puck, he can really make things happen. And I'd say he's a pretty good passer too."

Vrana's numbers are especially noteworthy as the bulk of his production has come at even-strength. While Vrana was promoted to the Capitals No.1 power play unit in January, he has spent much of the season among the NHL's scoring leaders in even-strength production.

"The maturity in his game just keeps growing," says Oshie. "He's always had the speed and the ability, but he's getting stronger, he's getting faster. I think he's learning how to use his speed at the right times and his 200-foot game is coming along."

Oshie says that Vrana's growth defensively has translated into better scoring opportunities at the other end.

"You can see at times, he's low [in the defensive zone] and he's helping out and then all of a sudden, we get the puck and he's gone," Oshie says. "Their D think they have all this gap and then the gap turns into nothing and he flies by them. His game has grown. It's been fun seeing his career progress."

Despite the strides Vrana has made defensively - skating alongside savvy vets Backstrom and Oshie certainly helps - Reirden notes that's still an area that can improve.

But if playing with Backstrom and Oshie can help with Vrana's all-around game, there is no denying the positive impact Ovechkin can have on a rising goal scorer with Vrana's ceiling.

"For me," Vrana says, "being in the same team with him, and seeing him doing that, it's just a motivation. You see how he wants to score all the time. Sometimes you come into league and you score a couple goals you feel like it's pretty good. But you can't stop. You have to keep finding ways to score goals. He does that. And so the motivation was meant like that- the way he's hungry and he's always driven to score goals."

The Capitals would also like to see Vrana shoot more. With 13 games remaining in the regular season, Vrana had already established a new career-best in shots on goal, but as Bondra notes, "goal-scorers need to shoot more often than less.

"I think for [Vrana], he needs to be a little bit more selfish. I see sometimes, he's passing up shots. He's got such a great shot and if he uses it even more and [defers] less, then, wow, he's going to score a lot of goals. That will come."

A bigger role and more ownership on the No.1 power play will also come with more reps. For now, Vrana is appreciative of the opportunity to play on one of the NHL's top units.

"It's a great opportunity for me," he says. "When you're on a team like the Capitals, you're on a great team, we're winning lots of games and it's not very easy to get that chance on the power play here, but, I've been patient. I've been here- this is my fifth year with this organization so I'm happy for every chance."

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