Jakub Vrana tries to keep everything in perspective. He knows that when he plays well, people will praise him. And that when he doesn’t, the opposite will happen.
Heading into the NHL All-Star break later this month, the 23-year-old Capitals forward is on pace to nearly double his scoring output from all of last season. His 20 goals, 19 of which have come at even strength, rank second on the Capitals—behindonly Alex Ovechkin—and 20th in the league.
After a poor performance in last season’s playoffs, where he scored zero points, Vrana is back to playing with a level of confidence that his coaches and teammates have expected from the former first-round draft pick. But Vrana refuses to give himself too much credit.
“I mean, it’s been OK,” he says of his season. “I’m the kind of person that I always have a higher goal than I have now, so I’m never really satisfied, but I’m happy the team is doing good. We’re in the first spot; that’s always a good thing to create some positivity around here. The team is together. The guys play for each other, which is great to see, for me especially. Individually, I’m pretty happy with my season, but I’m not satisfied. I know it can be better. There’s always areas I can be better on.”
To Vrana, that means playing with more consistency. Against the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 11, coach Todd Reirden inserted Vrana into the first power-play unit in order to find a spark for a team struggling with the power play, despite owning the NHL’s best record. Vrana went on to score the only Capitals goal that night in a 5-1 loss against one of the lowest-ranked teams in the league, but the Devils also scored while shorthanded.
Fans at Capital One Arena booed the Caps’ power play.
“He’s a talented player,” Reirden said after the game. “We’ve had just a couple reps in practice with him doing it. But he obviously brings a different element. Whether that is the right fit for us or not, we’re going to have to continue to adjust things until we can find something that’s working for us. ‘Cause you know … to score a goal but give up one, that’s not going to work.”
The Capitals drafted Vrana with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, and he has been considered a future NHL star. His breakout came in just his second year with the Caps during the 2017-18 season, and Vrana has improved each year since.
Earlier this month, The Athletic‘s Tarik El-Bashir gave Vrana an A-minus in his Capitals’ midseason report card.
“Jakub continues to grow and get better,” Reirden says. “He’s just still a young guy. And especially with his experiences in North America, having played in, whether the Czech league or the Swedish league, before coming over here, sometimes it takes longer for those guys and initially in the beginning path when they first get to North America. So he continues just to grow and get better every year, and he puts the work and the time in after practice and spends extra time with video to try to continue to build the detail into his game.”
During practice, Vrana is often one of the last players off the ice. After the loss to the Devils, he spoke about looking forward to going over video to see what went wrong. Hockey is ever present on his mind.
“I’m living alone,” he says. “I’m single, so it’s hard to don’t think about hockey, so you got to find a way to not when you’re home and clear your mind.”
He does that by watching movies and realizing that he gets to do what he loves for a living.
“When I was a kid, all I did was hockey,” Vrana says. “I just want to keep doing that. I used to score a lot of goals, and I want to keep doing that. Honestly, all I’m thinking about is do things right and have fun, have fun playing hockey. And that’s all I think about right now. Don’t get distracted by the other stuff around me, you know, just focus on the right thing.”
Lars Eller, who has played with Vrana since being traded to the Caps in 2016, praises Vrana’s confidence and consistency so far this season. Vrana, he says, has shown a hunger to improve that the best players in the sport possess.
“Confidence is what, I think, separates a very good player from an elite player,” Eller says. “He’s earned his confidence this year by using his skills and speed to get goals and make plays and beat guys. He’s using his assets I think a lot better and very consistently this year and … when he feels it’s working, then the confidence comes. He’s been kind of riding that wave.”
Jason Rogers contributed to this report.