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A Dispassionate Defense of Trading Jakub Vrana

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Sad hissing ensues

New York Islanders v Washington Capitals Photo by Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images

I, like many of you, spent a not-so-insignificant portion of my Monday afternoon alternating between refreshing Twitter, looking at the time, and checking work emails (not necessarily in that order, but also not NOT necessarily in that order.) Not too long after the clock hit the all-so-critical 3:00 pm eastern, marking the official Trade Deadline But Not Actually, the news broke: Washington had pulled the trigger on a highly-anticipated move, acquiring Anthony Mantha from Red Wings in exchange for first- and second-round picks, Richard Panik, and of course Jakub Vrana.

To say that initial reactions to the deal were dispirited would be a bit of an understatement. Instead, there was a lot of this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

As my group text chats started to blow up, taking much the same tenor as the initial social discourse, and as my initial shock had worn off, I began feeling perplexed at the rancor and sadness that the trade had elicited. While many were gnashing their teeth and pulling their hair, well, this kind of all seemed to make somewhat perfect sense to me! Was I the crazy one for not turning into a puddle and seeping into the carpet?

It’s no secret that the Capitals organization is going to have some tough decisions to make this offseason, not the least of which is what to do with Snakey Jakey, their 25-year-old winger headed for restricted free agency in a few short months. As a former first-rounder and player that they had pinned high hopes upon, it is hard to see a scenario where he would be amenable to a deal of under five years at (pulls number seemingly out of thin air) five-ish million per annum. However, his struggles and frustrations have been well-documented. Under coach Peter Laviolette, he was on pace for disappointingly low numbers and their disfunction (punctuated by a two-game healthy-scratch benching this month) was visible on Vrana’s face and in his comportment.

But this isn’t new! Baby Beans played under three head coaches in Washington and has been scratched or benched at least once by all three. Brian McLellan showed his cards in his post-deadline press conference expressing that the friction between coach and player played a role in the decision to move on, saying “Jakub’s a little frustrated with where he’s at here within the organization probably wants a little more ice time, little more responsibility. There was a tug-of-war between coaching staff and how he was playing.” In addition, when they have needed Vrana to step up the most, he’s shown little ability to make it happen. Spare not a thought for his 13-game goalless streak this year, but also for the last two postseasons in which he has tallied zero points in fifteen games with a cumulative -8 +/- in 14:22 of ice time.

One can split hairs on whether or not the Caps’ Lil’ Buddy has been given adequate leeway or support or opportunities. When Laviolette challenged Evgeny Kuznetzov earlier this season to up his game, the results have borne fruit. When faced with the same demands, many have rushed to Vrana’s defense despite not seeing a similar turnaround on the ice. Anyone who has watched Vrana this season has seen a player who is clearly frustrated; with his coach, with his circumstances, and with himself. But ultimately Vrana forced their hand, something had to give, and for many driven by feelings and emotions, it is clearly too much to swallow.

You can feel as though they gave up too much in the deal, that the two picks and two players in return for just one tilts the scales in the wrong direction. But the 2nd rounder was functionally for Detroit to take on Panik’s oversized contract, a negative asset that would have not been so unpalatable if the cap had not stayed flat; and the extra first… well in a year when in-person scouting has been significantly reduced due to covid-related restrictions, it becomes less of a sure thing late in the first round. Washington clearly saw a lot to like in Mantha, a burly, physical player who, on paper, slots in nicely in Laviolette’s system. Also waiting in the wings is a nearly NHL-ready Connor McMichael, who McLellan felt compelled to reference in his comments today — while he’s not ready for full-time NHL duty, he seemingly also can’t be too far off from getting that chance. With Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Samsonov also needing new contracts this offseason, in addition to a looming expansion draft, this is now one less thing that Washington needs to figure out for their future.

The fact is, Washington knew what they had in Vrana, and they couldn’t project out his development being commensurate with what he would command in a new deal. Now for Vrana, it’s an opportunity to bounce back, to have a redemption arc, and to win over another team and their fanbase. For as much as this feels like a positive more than a negative, of course I’m sad to see him go! There’s an enduring shelf life for sending silly gifs to my buddies of Jake struggling to put on his headset for an intermission interview with a “me irl amirite?” I’ll never, ever not go straight into my celebration-time Joe B voice to giggle a “Jaaaaakub Vraaaana” when he does something good or fun on the ice.

There’s no replacing how it feels rooting for a Stanley Cup champion, and even though he’ll be tending his craft elsewhere we can both wish him all the best and know that perhaps it was the right thing to do for all involved.