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Jakub Vrana won't let defense rest

Offensively gifted Capitals forward prospect working diligently to improve play in own end

by Alain Poupart / Correspondent

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- The Washington Capitals feature some of the NHL's most gifted offensive players, including Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom. Forward prospect Jakub Vrana, 20, also fits into that category.

At least that's what Troy Mann, Vrana's coach at Hershey of the American Hockey League, believes. It's the rest of Vrana's game that will have to catch up before he gets to showcase his talents at the NHL level.

Washington's opening game in the recent Florida Panthers prospect tournament provided the perfect example of Vrana's game: flashy but incomplete.

"I think [Vrana], much like last year, is an offensive whiz," Mann said. "I certainly think he can rise to the challenge a little bit more. I know it's a rookie tournament, maybe his second one, but we talked to him before the tournament and told him that he really needs to make an impression.

"If Vrana wants to play in Washington this year, he needs to be the best player on the ice. I think there's room for improvement there … when it comes to goals against and playing well defensively … he needs to improve."

Vrana, the No. 13 pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, showed off his offensive skills with Hershey last season, finishing with 34 points (16 goals, 18 assists) in 36 games before scoring 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 21 games to help the Bears reach the Calder Cup finals.

The postseason action was beneficial for Vrana (5-foot-11, 185 pounds), whose regular season was interrupted by a wrist injury that sidelined him for three months.

"That was perfect," he said. "I lost three months of the season last year and it was nice to play until the middle of June and be in the finals. Obviously, it ended up bad for us, but take the positive things away from there. It was nice to play [deep into the playoffs] and get some games."

Vrana stayed in his native Czech Republic instead of attending the Capitals development camp this summer, and returned to North America for the prospect tournament.

He's well aware of the areas where his game needs improvement.

"I've been working on defensive play last year and I think I got a lot better there," he said. "Just prove that every day, and we'll see where it goes."

Vrana is one of 38 forwards on Washington's opening training camp roster, and it won't be easy for him to earn a spot. That doesn't mean he's not shooting for one.

Asked for his ideal timetable to make it to the NHL, Vrana didn't hesitate.

"Right away," he said. "I'm going to do my best. Just fight for a spot and we'll see how the coaches are going to look on that."

Not surprisingly, the idea of one day skating on a line with Ovechkin, Backstrom or Kuznetsov appeals to Vrana.

"They're all skilled guys, right?" he said. "It would be nice to play with them. Hopefully we will have some chemistry there if I'm going to get there one day."

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