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Jakub Vrana, Capitals’ last high-end forward prospect, plans to keep his spot in the top six

Blog: Customer Experience Management

Jakub Vrana is a little too bashful to talk about what he might be best known for in Washington now. In the days after the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, the gregarious 22-year-old was the life of the raucous party with his teammates, chronicling on the players’ boozy adventure through Georgetown and a trip to a tattoo parlor. He endeared himself to a fan base that was having as much fun as he was, and was living vicariously through him.

But “they do talk about it way too much,” said Vrana, who already has moved on and is eager to establish himself as a fan favorite on the ice.

“My confidence is good,” Vrana said. “I’ve always been a confident player. Obviously I know I have to work on some things, and I’m in the process right now. I’m getting better every day, coming to the rink and working on the little things Coach Todd Reirden wants me to work on. With that lineup position I end up in last year, I want to hold my spot there obviously and play as best I can.”

After a roller-coaster rookie season in which he scored 13 goals with 14 assists in 73 games, Vrana was at his best in the playoffs. He was a healthy scratch for one game in the first round, but he ended the postseason playing on the second line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie as the speedy, offensive complement to the shutdown duo. He finished with three goals in the playoffs, including the first tally in the Capitals’ Cup-clinching Game 5 win against the Vegas Golden Knights.

The Capitals look for Vrana’s production to increase in his sophomore season, especially because he’s expected to start the season where he ended the last one, as a member of the top-six forward corps. His continued development is crucial for an organization that lacks high-end forwards behind him.

While Washington is pleased with the two forwards it picked in this most recent draft — Riley Sutter and Kody Clark — those two are back with their Canadian major junior clubs, and like the team’s other forward prospects, they project into bottom-six NHL roles. The team hasn’t drafted a forward in the first round since Vrana in 2014, and 14 of its past 22 draft picks have been defensemen or goalies.

“I think we have more defense prospects than forward prospects,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “Yeah, I mean, we are looking at it. … At some point, we’re trying to exchange forward prospects for other prospects, if the opportunity comes up.”

The Capitals’ two most recent first-round picks are defensemen — Lucas Johansen in 2016 and Alex Alexeyev this year — and the team’s American Hockey League affiliate could have a blue line with six prospects drafted in the past five years. Meanwhile, Washington’s top four defensemen are all under contract for at least three more seasons.

There’s more opportunity at forward. Wingers Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly and center Nic Dowd are all unrestricted free agents after this season. Vrana, 24-year-old Chandler Stephenson and 23-year-old Andre Burakovsky also are in contract years, scheduled to become restricted free agents next summer. As the Capitals work on restocking their forward-prospect cupboard, they need those three to steadily improve.

After last season, Vrana’s future seems especially bright.

“I have my own goals, but I really don’t want to put on myself too much pressure and put too much in my head,” Vrana said. “I just want to feel free in my head and have fun playing hockey, coming to every game prepared and be ready to play hard as I can. Obviously I love scoring goals — it’s kind of my role to help team offensively — and that’s what I’m going to try to do every game.”

Said Reirden: “To end the season like that, obviously some big goals, but I just liked his overall game, as was the case with our entire team. It was good two-way hockey from him, and I didn’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. So I think they’ve helped him, and they’ve done a great job of mentoring and helping him with the overall importance of the game. 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 getting the puck with some space, then he becomes real dangerous.”

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