We’re so excited to welcome yet another esteemed writer to the Japers’ Rink crew - you probably already know her work from numerous hockey sites, from The Hockey Writers to Sporting News to The Sports Capitol, and now she’s joining our ever-expanding team to help bring more awesome coverage. Please welcome Sammi Silber!
Jakub Vrana walks past mostly empty stalls, finally emerging from the ice after taking an extra half an hour to skate by himself. Still, despite nearly a two-hour practice on Wednesday, and most of his teammates already showered and headed home, the Czech winger was in high spirits, bantering with lingering teammates like Evgeny Kuznetsov before dribbling a basketball from a Harlem Globetrotter’s event, still in full gear.
“This is my home,” he declared. “I live here.”
Soaked in sweat, Vrana sits comfortably in his stall but is unafraid to admit that “sometimes” he feels the burn following a long skate. However, a standard practice doesn’t prove long enough for him; he’s usually the last player off the ice, utilizing the full, empty rink to work on a variety of skills.
“I’m used to it... you stay and you work on your single game, your individual game” he said, fidgeting with his skate laces before adding, “I’ve been doing this my whole life.”
The 22-year-old said it’s always been that way because of his age. He is no stranger to being the youngest guy in the dressing room, from his days in Sweden until now (with the exception of call-up Jonas Siegenthaler).
With being the youngest player in the room comes responsibilities, including being the last one off and picking up the pucks at the end of practice. And in turn, it’s become a common occurrence throughout his career, though he makes sure that extra practice doesn’t counteract or exhaust his overall game.
“I just read my body, I read what my body needs, what I need by myself, and then I go and do it,” Vrana said.
That extra work has paid off for Vrana this season, though. In 30 games so far, he’s racked up nine goals and 18 points, making him on pace for a career year with a career-high 25 goals and 49 points. And while he admitted to paying attention to his stats, they don’t matter too much to him.
“You don’t play hockey for numbers, right? You play hockey because you love it and because you having fun, and that’s what I’m trying to have every game,” Vrana shrugged.
Over the last three seasons in Washington, it’s taken Vrana time to truly make his mark. He struggled to find offence and consistency. Last year, it took 73 games for him to put up just 13 goals and 27 points, and he also found himself in the midst of slumps, moved around the lineup and even scratched from time to time over the course of the regular season.
Coming into this season, Vrana was ready to build on his rookie season, which ended on a high note with a strong playoff performance and a Stanley Cup to boot.
As he’s moved around the lineup, Vrana has continued to sharpen his game. The 2014 13th-overall pick has a combination of speed and skill-set not seen by many, and for Vrana, that has come with the extra work he puts in during practice.
“There’s always something to work on, obviously work on my offensive skills because that’s the thing you can work on during the practice, and obviously the defensive game, to be strong consistently,” Vrana said. “That’s what I need to improve on, to be consistently good in defensive zone and then there’s always the little things... you can see what you have in your game and what you have to work on.
His work ethic, as well as his ability and speed has made him one of the most versatile forwards on the roster, something that continues to impress head coach Todd Reirden.
“Ice time is based on reward of how you’re playing and [Vrana] seems to always put himself in that situation where I feel like I got to get him out there more because he has great game ability,” Reirden said.
His play has been entertaining for his teammates to follow, especially for Travis Boyd. The two have played together for four years since Vrana’s days in Hershey. Even on the bench watching him, Boyd said he’s thought to himself “dang, that was sick!”
“Man, when he gets going, and it doesn’t take him much to get going, he’s so fast, he’s so skilled. Some of the things he does out there, they are super elite,” Boyd said. “I love the kid, he’s great on and off the ice. He’s maturing, and he’s going to be a really good player for the Capitals for a long time.”
Lars Eller agreed, and explained that Vrana’s play rubs off on the entire team. In turn, the expectations are high, especially when it comes to stringing together points.
“It’s good when V’s on his game, he makes our team a lot better,” Eller said. “He has a lot of upside and when he brings that consistently, he can be a top player, very dangerous. We want to continue to see that from him.”