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Jakub Vrana Gives the Caps Something They Haven’t Had in a Decade

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A quick look at how Jakub Vrana’s emergence as a lethal scoring threat on the second line is reminiscent of another era of Caps’ hockey.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Forty-nine games into the 2019-20 campaign, Jakub Vrana has already lit the lamp 19 times at five-on-five, only four goals shy of his career-best 22 set last season, and with a whopping 33 games still yet to be played.

But this isn’t just a high-powered offensive season by Vrana’s standards (and it’s worth noting that Jakub is still young enough and improving quickly enough that we scarcely know where his standards will ultimately level out). This is the kind of season that stands up to just about any season by a Capital not named Alex Ovechkin during the Behind the Net Era (2007 - present), a meaningful inflection point because we are not able to analyze rate stats, relative stats, or on-ice stats for hockey before the 2007-08 season.

To wit, in the following seasons Ovechkin was the only Capital who scored more even-strength goals than the 18 Vrana has already posted: ‘07-08, ‘11-12, ‘13-14, ‘14-15, ‘15-16, ‘16-17.

In the ‘10-11 season, as well as in the lockout-shortened 2013 campaign, Vrana’s eighteen five-on-five markers would have been enough to lead the squad. Vrana is currently on pace to finish the season with 30 five-on-five goals, which would be tied for the third best such marker for a Capital in the last fourteen years. It’s behind only Alex Ovechkin’s 34 goals in 2007-08, which you’ll remember as being his 65-goal season, and Alex Ovechkin’s 31 five-on-five goals in 2009-10, which you’ll remember as the year the Capitals boasted one of the most potent offenses in this era of modern hockey.

Alex Semin is a pertinent name to arise in a discussion about Jakub Vrana, because Semin’s tenure as a Capital was arguably the last time the Caps boasted a reliable shooting threat away from Ovechkin.

If you’re curious about who was firing off shots at a greater rate than Alex Ovechkin back in 2011-12, here’s a hint: he was bald, and he was fast. That’s right, Jason Chimera once finished a season with a higher shots/60 than Alex Ovechkin, but we'd be remiss not to mention that ice-time discrepancies played a significant role in that. Similarly, it was Eric Fehr who back in 2008-09 shot at a rate above the “Vrana line”.

But firing off shots is only one component to scoring goals, with beating the goalie being the other.

And to that end, Vrana is shooting the puck with greater efficiency this year than both Ovechkin and Semin ever managed through a full campaign. Reasonable minds might claim that this is cause to expect regression of some sort — but regression to what exactly? This is only the third season in which Vrana will suit up for more than half the games, and his shooting percentage last season was comparable to his efficiency this year.

What we’re looking at here is something that the Caps haven’t had the privilege of possessing since the Boudreau-era Fun Guns: an elite scoring threat at the top of his game, and skating away from Alex Ovechkin. When you’re an opposing coach and you have to account for the League’s fourth best five-on-five goal scorer on the first line, and then the tied-for-second best five-on-five goal scorer when the second line hops over the boards, you’re going to have a bad time.

With Alex Ovechkin still performing at the level that he is, and with Jakub Vrana’s development seemingly happening on a J-Curve, you can’t help but feel like the closing of the Caps’ metaphorical window may be happening much slower than it once looked like it may.