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It’s Time to Take Off Jakub Vrana’s Training Wheels

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A look at a young forward’s ice time

Washington Capitals v New Jersey Devils Photo by Jim McIsaac/NHLI via Getty Images

Jakub Vrana is one of the best pure goal-scorers in hockey.

Of the 605 forwards who have logged more than 100 minutes at five-on-five over the past three seasons (including this one), the only ones who have scored goals at a higher rate in those situations than Vrana’s 1.44 per 60 minutes are Auston Matthews (1.50), Dominik Kubalik (1.48 in around half as many minutes as Vrana’s 2,161), Brendan Gallagher (1.46), and David Pastrnak (1.45). That’s it (and because you’re wondering, Alex Ovechkin clocks in at 1.43).

And yet, Vrana’s five-on-five ice time per game is just 12:09, seventh on the team, down a tick from last season’s 12:19 and the season prior’s 12:34. Given that Vrana has taken on more power play responsibility this season, his overall ice time per game is actually up to 15:12 (last season it was 14:53). But his five-on-five minutes are on a curious downward trend:

via HockeyViz

So what’s going on?

Well, the Caps have gone 8-2-1 over their last 11 games, having played 172 minutes with a lead at five-on-five during that time and just 149 minutes while trailing (221 while tied), and Peter Laviolette uses Vrana more when the Caps need a goal than when they’re protecting a lead:

via HockeyViz

Those two minutes per night over the last couple of weeks don’t sound like much, and they’re not, but the difference is even more pronounced over the last six games, a span during which Vrana has averaged just 11.1 minutes of five-on-five time per night while the Caps have gone 5-1-0, leading, on average, for 18:49 per night at fives while trailing for 11:49. Given how Laviolette likes to protect leads with his fourth line, it’s hardly surprising to see Vrana getting so little ice when the team is playing well. In fact, no regular forward is playing less with the lead than Vrana (unless you count Daniel Sprong as a regular; Vrana is fifth in ice time when trailing, seventh when tied).

That’s the “what.” How about the “why?”

That’s a tougher question to answer. Reasonable minds can quibble as to whether Vrana should be getting more ice time when trailing than any of the four forwards ahead of him (Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson), or the six ahead of him when tied (add Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie to the list), so instead let’s focus on ice time with the lead... and what’s been done with those minutes. Since we’re more concerned with not allowing offense - at least not more than is being created - here’s a look at the Caps forwards at five-on-five with some defensive measures and percentages:

data via NatStatTrick

What we see is that neither by results nor expectations has Vrana shown that he can’t be trusted to play with a lead. In fact, his numbers look pretty darn good in terms of suppressing chances (and before we bury the fourth line, do note their zone starts in the far right column).

The way this Caps team likes to blow leads, and the way that Vrana likes to score goals, Peter Laviolette should be using him more when the Caps are up in games until the young Czech proves he can’t handle that. But here’s betting that he can.