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Two of a Kind: Sniper Types

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Where we look at two very similar Capitals, a generation apart, with very similar performance profiles.

Peter Bondra

They were both born in February, 28 years apart, in cities a thousand kilometers apart in Eastern Europe, one in what is now Ukraine, the other in the Czech Republic. One was drafted by the Washington Capitals not knowing a word of English or having watched a single NHL game. He was an eighth-round draft pick taken 156th overall in the 1990 Entry Draft. The other was heavily scouted and considered a consensus first round draft pick in the 2014 Entry Draft. The Caps selected him with the 13th overall pick. One wore the number “12,” a number many Caps fans believe should be retired. The other wears “13,” a number with a less storied past in Caps history. One has taken a keen interest in the other, the master of his craft and a youngster still working on his.

Similar in some ways, dissimilar in others, Caps fans of a certain age might see one in the other, and vice versa when watching highlights of both. The straight away speed, the low crouch when skating on a rush, the quick release, the same joy when celebrating a goal, the ruthless mentality of a pure sniper. When one watches Jakub Vrana these days, they might also be watching Peter Bondra from years gone by. Even Caps TV analyst Craig Laughlin saw the similarities.

There certainly are similarities, starting at the highest level of comparison. In four-plus seasons with the Caps (through Tuesday’s win against New Jersey), Vrana has dressed for 269 regular season games and posted a scoring line of 75-75-150, plus-37. Compare that to Bondra’s first four seasons with the Caps, over which he appeared in 277 games with a scoring line of 101-111-212, plus-37. The early 1990’s in which Bondra began his career could explain his higher production, but on an experience-gained level, the two had similar beginnings.

That said, Vrana does not have, and perhaps never will have the scoring pedigree of Bondra, a two-time 50-goal scorer, twice the league’s leading goal scorer, and with 472 goals as a Capital over his 14 years in Washington. He is in his fifth year with the club and has yet to top 25 goals in a single season. But the similarities one might see with their lying eyes is supported by numbers, too. Consider first their early careers. Vrana got a head start on Bondra, entering the NHL in his age-20 year, whereas Bondra joined the Caps in his age-22 year. But where their early careers overlap, ages 22-24, their goals per game are almost identical:

Top image via QuantHockey

Bondra, of course, went on to bigger things as a Capital, as the graphic below on goals per game illustrates, but at similar points of their careers, they were very similar in production in their specialty skill—scoring goals.

As part of that specie of player known as a “snipers,” the early years of both players saw them becoming more confident in and more adept at getting shots on goal. Again, from their overlapping years by age:

The odd part about being “snipers,” though, is that efficiency in shooting is not necessarily a part of the package, at least insofar as Vrana and Bondra are concerned. Of 57 players with at least 250 goals scored during Bondra’s 14 seasons with the Caps, none had a shooting percentage over 20 percent (Gary Roberts was at 19.9 percent), and Bondra was right in the middle of the pack, 28th with a 14.3 shooting percentage. Since Vrana came into the league in 2016-2017, there have been 118 players posting 75 or more goals (Vrana has 75). Of that group, none are over 19 percent (Mark Scheifele: 18.9), and Vrana ranks 49th at 13.2 percent. The two have similar shooting profiles and occupy similar spaces in scoring efficiency among high-volume goal scorers.

If you are thinking that Jakub Vrana is destined to become as productive as was Peter Bondra in almost 14 seasons with the Caps, you are likely to be disappointed. There are at least two reasons for this. First, Bondra became the go-to goal scorer for the Caps after that early career developmental stage. In those 14 seasons he had the five highest season goal totals, seven of the top ten totals, and nine of the top 15 goal totals. Of the top 15 season goal totals over that period, only Jaromir Jagr and Dmitri Khristich appear on the list more than once (twice apiece). Vrana does, and likely will for a bit more time at least, occupy a lower rung on the ladder of go-to goal scorers. This is, and likely will be for a few more years, Alex Ovechkin’s neighborhood for goal scoring.

Second, this isn’t the 1990’s. Even with the dead-puck era settling in after the abbreviated 1994-1995 season, the era did not lack for 50-goal scorers. Over Bondra’s 14 seasons in Washington, the NHL had 53 50-goal seasons spread over 29 different players. Bondra was one of 16 players in that period with multiple 50-goal seasons. Since Vrana came into the league in 2016-2017 through last season, the NHL had two 50-goal scorers, both in 2018-2019 (Alex Ovechkin: 51; Leon Draisaitl: 50). The lack of high-end goal scoring is a league-wide phenomenon, even with last year’s COVID-abbreviated season. In that context, if “40 is the new 50” as far as goal scoring is concerned (29 40-goal seasons by 23 different players over the 2016-2017 through 2019-2020 period), Vrana might have a career with participation in that club and become the Peter Bondra of his Capitals era.