Jakub Vrana is playing absolutely out of his mind, and finally starting to get some of the recognition he deserves in DC, even if not nationwide. His breakout year came in 2017-18, and primarily during the playoffs, when he played a pivotal role in the Caps eventual Stanley Cup win. Since that time, he has only been improving.
So what’s behind his success? Well for starters, there’s the fact that he can do stuff like this:
Beyond his obvious ability to dangle a goalie out of his skates, Vrana is deceptively fast. According to Natural Stat Trick, he is 4th in the league in rush attempts, with 13, and he leads the team in this area. He often uses this speed to turn what should be a simple neutral zone puck retrieval for the defense, into a breakaway in the other direction. His speed also enables him to catch up to plays, which can turn 1-on-1’s into 2-on-1’s, 2-on-2’s to 3-on-2’s etc.
The clearest example of this came on the first goal of his first NHL hat trick, which took place on 11/3/19 (with the World Series Champs in attendance).
Let’s break that play down a little.
At the beginning of the play, Vrana is covering TJ Brodie (#7 in white) at the top of the circle. Kuznetzov collects the puck on the half-wall, and passes to Wilson who has it stripped. The puck gets away from Kuzy, and Brodie realizes that his defensive partner is tied up, and won’t be able to chase down the puck.
Because all the other Caps (including Vrana) are so far behind the play, Brodie plays it as though it is a puck race, rather than an odd man rush. He clearly expects that by the time any other Caps players arrive, he will have help from a forward. Had he known that Vrana was going to catch up to Kuzy, he probably would have let Kuzy have the puck, backpedaled, and focused on preventing a cross ice pass. Instead, he played the puck and Kuzy was able to pass it to Vrana absolutely motoring towards the net, with the nearest player about 20 feet away. Good luck stopping that.
Not only is he speedy, he’s crafty too. The players who you typically associate with a strong net front presence are those who are bigger, and more physical players than Vrana, and yet, this is what his shot chart looks like:
A huge percentage of his shots come from high danger areas. Some of that is due to plays on the rush, but he really does shoot from these areas a lot. To prove my point about just how weird this is, given his size, there are only three other Capitals who get more high danger chances than him (relative to ice time): Oshie, Wilson, and Hathaway. (H/T Natural Stat Trick, again) Wilson and Hathaway have 15-20 pounds on Vrana, and we all know Oshie plays like a dude 20 pounds bigger than he is, so how does Jake the Snake do it?
It turns out that whenever he’s not five miles ahead of the rest of the guys on the ice, he pretty much just wanders around the slot like a lost puppy until the other team forgets he’s there, and then either gets a juicy rebound, or a wide open one timer. Take this goal from a game in December against the sharks.
Do you see who he just…. glides past? That’s Patrick Marleau. This guy has played 1,700 games in his career, there’s no reason Vrana should have been able to get close enough to take TWO shots completely untouched. Yes, I understand that the entire Sharks team got caught puck watching. That’s kinda my point actually. Vrana isn’t going to overpower you, or thread needles the way guys like Kuznetsov can. He’s just going to disappear on you, and then reappear completely wide-open.
Even when there’s chaos in front, and everyone seems to be banging away at it, he still seems to come out of nowhere at the most opportune time, and just bury it into a gaping net. It’s tough to defend against a guy when he’s in one place now, and somewhere completely different 5 seconds later.
Another often overlooked aspect of his game, is how cheap he is, for how good he is. On a team that is absolutely strapped for cap space, having a 20-30 goal scorer come at the low, low price of just $3.35 Million AAV is crucial. In fact, according to Cap Friendly, among Capitals making at least $1 Million AAV, he has the most cost-efficient contract, averaging just $88,158 per point.
With Vrana becoming an RFA in 2021, the Caps will likely be able to hang on to him for the foreseeable future, which is good, considering what an important role he plays on this team.