Welcome to the final installment of the Capitals' Top 25 Under 25 series, where we here at Japers' Rink count down Washington's...well... top 25 players under the age of 25.
Without further ado, here are numbers three through one.
3. Jakub Vrana, LW/RW (20.6, drafted 13th-overall in 2014 draft, previously ranked 3rd in Top 25 list)
The Capitals are being patient with Jakub Vrana, Washington's highest drafted player since Filip Fors... I mean Karl Alzner in 2007.
In previous drafts, first round picks like Marcus Johansson, Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky all made the transition from junior (or, in Johansson's case, Swedish professional) to the NHL relatively quickly.
But Vrana is the Capitals' fine wine, and that patience will hopefully pay off in the long run.
Vrana has the offensive skill set to make it to the next level. Limited to 36 games this year for a wrist injury that required surgery, Vrana seemed comfortable at the AHL level, scoring 16 goals and recording 18 assists for the Hershey Bears. Flashy in nature, Vrana is an electric, creative winger, which should translate well to the NHL level.
But there are two things, according to Bears' head coach Troy Mann, holding Vrana back from making an immediate jump to the NHL in this upcoming season. From the Washington Post's Isabelle Khurshudyan:
"Vrana, from a forward's perspective, he's certainly our closest guy that's going to play in Washington," Mann said. "... Do I think he's completely ready for the NHL? Absolutely not. He needs to continue to work on two things. He needs to get stronger, and he was a player that admitted that in his year-end exit meeting that he felt throughout that seven-week process in the playoffs that he felt he needed to get stronger. It was on our list to talk about, but he was the one that brought that up, so he knows just going through that seven-week playoff run and getting to the finals that he needs to get stronger to be a fixture in Washington or make an even bigger impact in Hershey next year."
"And then he has to continue to work on his defensive game because, if you're not going to play a 200-foot game, you're not going to play for Barry Trotz, and I've told him that. That's something that's a work in progress for us as well. In terms of his skating ability, his shot, his play-making ability, that's all NHL-caliber right now. We've just got to get him stronger and his ability to get to the net. We preach that in Hershey, just like Trotzy does here, that you've got to get inside the dots and you've got to get to the blue paint to score goals, not only in the American League, but the NHL. Those are the things Vrana is going to have to do, and by getting stronger, that'll give him the extra ability to be able to get to those areas. And he just needs to commit to playing defensively on a more consistent basis, and he'll be in Washington."
General manager Brian MacLellan has said that he would like to get Vrana some NHL time in this upcoming season, but that would likely only happen if injuries occur among the wing group.
Vrana's time as a Capital forward is drawing near, but there's just no room for him now, especially if the Caps want to try to avoid using him as a fourth-line player early in his career (as they previously did with Burakovsky). Vrana is better off playing a top-line role in Hershey, boosting his offensive confidence while fine tuning the things he needs to work on. And, considering both T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams are set to become unrestricted free agents next season, Vrana's opportunity to play as a full-time top-six forward may come as soon as the 2017-18 season.
2. Andre Burakovsky, LW (21.7, drafted 23rd-overall in 2013 draft, previously ranked 1st in Top 25 list)
This year, Andre Burakovsky finally cemented himself as a top-six winger, but it was a season of ups and downs.
In the first 34 games of the season, Burakovsky had just nine total points. That's a down.
But, by season's end, Burakovsky would finish with 17 goals and 21 assists in 79 games, setting career highs in all respective categories. That's an up.
But then there was another rough patch. During the Capitals' playoff run, Burakovsky would record a single point, one single goal. That's a down.
But, as Adam Stringham (who has a man crush on Burakovsky) pointed out, Burakovsky had the highest score-adjusted Corsi-For percentage and highest expected goals-for percentage on the team during the playoffs.
What we saw was a 20-year-old just going through the hardships of a season. He will have those rough patches, but he'll continue to grow and push through them. He told that much to Khurshudyan:
"Sometimes, it's good to have those ups and downs," Burakovsky said. "It's good to have, so you learn how to get out of them real quick because everyone's going to have downs. It's just a reality. It's just how it is. But the thing you want to learn and (the) thing you want to do is get rid of them quick. I think my down was maybe 10, 15 games, and that's something you have to get rid of quick. That's something I've been working on this year, and I think it helped to have a little bit of a down."
We can expect to see Burakovsky penciled in as the second line left wing, but it will be interesting to see if he stays as a left wing beyond this upcoming season.
There was a span of a few games where Burakovsky was lined up as a right wing last year. Purely based on observation and memory (and therefore subject to that omnipresent grain of salt), Burakovsky seemed to get more confidence in his shot when he played from the right wing. From the right side, Burakovsky can cut across the ice on his forehand to get a shot off, and he seemed to take advantage of that quite a bit.
In fact, we've also seen Burakovsky line up on the right side on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and it was a great success. Dating back to the 2014-15 season, that trio has played 189:42 minutes of 5v5 time. According to Puckalytics' SuperWOWY tool, they managed to record a 56.3 Corsi-For percentage and 16 total goals. It's a small sample size, but that's 5.06 goals per 60 minutes of play. Is Burakovsky better as a right wing?
Even if he is, of course, the way the team is currently constructed doesn't bode well for Burakovsky to line up as a right wing. Neither one of Oshie or Williams seem to be fits as left wings. But if either of the two hit free agency next offseason, would the Capitals choose to place Burakovsky on the right side and Vrana on the left?
Whether he's lined up on the left or right, this upcoming season may very well be Burakovsky's breakout year.
1. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C (24.4, drafted 26th-overall in 2010 draft, previously ranked 2nd in Top 25 list)
It took Washington many, many years to find him, but the Capitals finally have an elite second-line center.
Evgeny Kuznetsov had a stellar breakout year, a year of creativity, wonderment and amusement. Kuznetsov celebrated with dabs, he danced around defenders and he dazzled all with his "twister" passes.
With 20 goals and 57 assists in 82 games, Kuznetsov not only finished as Washington's top scorer, but he also finished ninth in scoring across the League.
Interestingly enough, he achieved that impressive point total despite going through a pretty long dry spell. In his last 20 games of the season (i.e. the entire month of March), Kuznetsov didn't score a single goal. That unfortunately continued on into the playoffs, where Kuznetsov scored just one goal in 12 playoff games (and it was a gimme, the puck hit the boards off of an odd bounce and gave Kuznetsov a wide open net).
It was a troubling way to end such an otherwise spectacular season, but it shouldn't be troubling long-term - because what honestly seems more unlikely, Kuznetsov never scores a goal again or he powers through the slumps in the future and maintains his status as one of the NHL's top scorers?
We saw just a tremendously successful year from Kuznetsov. He was an All-Star participant, a World Cup participant, and he came in 19th in the Hart Trophy voting. And we also got to see a new quirky personality emerge, a player who's not afraid to crack a dorky joke during a post game media scrum or on camera.
But, more importantly, we saw Kuznetsov improve as a player. In Rob Parker's Rink Wrap of Kuznetsov, the possession statistic trends are clearly positive. From Rob:
The production was obviously great, and his flare invigorating, but there was more than the eye candy to get excited about. The improvement in his underlying metrics was clear. He increased all facets of his 5-on-5 point production, individual shot/Fenwick/Corsi rates, and on-ice possession rates. He became a positive Corsi-Relative player around his 150th NHL game (~mid-February) and opened a healthy margin over the team when he was off-ice. His impact on his teammates was generally positive, and he was by no means hidden by Trotz.
Kuznetsov quickly emerged as one of the team's most valuable players. And at the ripe age of 24, what more is he capable of?