Washington Capitals: Carving out a bigger role for Jakub Vrana

Jakub Vrana #13 of the Washington Capitals. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Jakub Vrana #13 of the Washington Capitals. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /
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Jakub Vrana (13)
Jakub Vrana #13 of the Washington Capitals. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

How should the Washington Capitals look to get the best out of Jakub Vrana?

There is no NHL player averaging south of sixteen minutes a night better than the Washington Capitals’ Jakub Vrana.  The Prague-born winger has set a career high in goals in each of the past two seasons.  He became a full-time NHLer in the 2017-18 season, scoring a scant thirteen goals in a campaign in which he averaged less barely a dozen minutes in his 73 appearances for the Caps.

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From that season onward, Vrana ranks seventh in goals per 60 at five-on-five, trailing only elite snipers like Auston Matthews, Alex Ovechkin, David Pastrnak, and Nikita Kucherov as well as net-front menaces Viktor Arvidsson and Brenden Gallagher.

Simply put, Vrana is a five-on-five force, yet he continues to play minutes more commensurate with a third-line grinder than a dominant offensive threat.

In his last five contests, Vrana has failed to hit the fifteen minute mark more than once, yet he has still contributed six points.

On some level, this makes sense.  A certain Russian sniper has an unassailable hold on the top of Washington’s left wing depth chart and also represents the shooting focal point of the Caps’ vaunted power player.  After all, it would seem awfully difficult to become the premier goalscoring threat for a team that already boasts the greatest goalscorer in league history.

And yet, an investigation into Vrana’s underlying numbers makes the conclusion that his skillset is underutilized inescapable.  To be clear, this problem is not unique to new Capitals’ Head Coach Peter Laviolette.  In fact, the 14:55 Vrana has averaged under the team’s new bench boss is his highest single-season total to date.

Three things Washington Capitals can do to get the best out of Jakub Vrana

To dig deeper into his performance this season, Vrana impresses even if you set aside his goal scoring prowess and instead focus on his ability as a playdriver.  At five-on-five, Vrana boasts a 70.00 Goals For %, 52.79 expected Goals %, and 50.65 High Danger Chances For %.  And don’t mistake his offensive efficacy for deficiency in his own end.  Vrana surrenders expected goals at a rate of just 1.83 per sixty minutes at five-on-five this year.

So there are (somewhat) understandable reasons for Vrana’s lack of ice time, but even more obvious is the way he has dominated when given the chance.  Given this reality, it’s incumbent on Laviolette to better equip the young sniper for success.  Here are a few suggestions as to how.

Jakub Vrana (13)
Jakub Vrana #13 of the Washington Capitals. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

Pairing Vrana with Evgeny Kuznetsov instead of Nicklas Backstrom

This season, Vrana has spent a slight majority of his even strength ice time with Nicklas Backstrom.  On the ice together, the pair have posted an eye-popping 75 GF%.  While this gaudy number is likely unsustainable, the trio’s 55.97 xGF% suggests that the line is nonetheless effective.

However, I would contend that Vrana’s offensive gifts—in particular his blistering foot speed and wrist shot—would be better served in tandem with a centerman of fleeter feet.  That would mean penciling Vrana in alongside Evgeny Kuznetsov, with whom Vrana has been quite productive in recent Washington contests.

Beyond the benefits to Vrana’s offense, providing Kuznetsov with an adept 200-foot winger would help bolster the Russian pivot’s defense.  With Vrana, Kuznetsov surrenders a 1.65 xGA/60; without him, that number leaps up to 1.93.  From a play-driving perspective, Kuznetsov’s Corsi drops over four full percentage points without Vrana on his wing.

Even if Vrana and Backstrom make for a formidable combination, the Caps can leverage Vrana’s gifts to get the most out of Kuznetsov at both ends of the ice.  JakubVrana can support Kuznetsov both with his defensive acumen, and their shared foot speed and puck skill would make for a formidable transition attacking duo.