Have you checked the NHL standings recently? The Washington Capitals are pretty damn good.
That shouldn’t surprise anyone, of course, given the team’s stature in the league as a frontrunner that didn’t need to sacrifice many crucial pieces of its 2017-18 Stanley Cup-winning roster. But with a league-leading 21-4-5 record through 30 games, and with seven players on pace to smash the 50-point barrier this season, the Caps have proven themselves to be Cup contenders once again.
Of course, the big guns haven’t shied away from the spotlight. Defenseman John Carlson, currently on pace for 115 points, could join Paul Coffey (103 in 1989-90), Al MacInnis (103 in 1990-91) and Brian Leetch (102 points in 1991-92) as just the fourth defenseman record 100 points in a season since Carlson was born. Alex Ovechkin is well on his way to another 50-goal season, while Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson are all playing some of the best hockey of their careers.
And then there’s Jakub Vrana, Washington’s secret weapon. With 14 goals and 25 points in 30 games, Vrana is on pace for a 38-goal, 68-point season – not bad for a player coming off a career-high 47-point season. But when you look past his surface-level stats, it’s clear Vrana is better than most people think – other than Caps fans, of course.
Among all players with at least 20 games played, Vrana sits seventh among forwards in points-per-60 at 5-on-5 with 3.17. The names ahead of him? Brad Marchand (4.33), Nathan MacKinnon (3.76), Leon Draisaitl (3.66), David Pastrnak (3.57) and Connor McDavid (3.32) – all elite players. Vrana falls down to 15th at all strengths, but that highlights the fact he does most of his damage at full strength. All 14 of Vrana’s goals have come at even strength, putting him a goal behind Draisaitl and Marchand for first in that category. At this rate, Vrana will finish with 38 goals on the season, far surpassing his previous high of 24 and two short of his three-season sum of 40. Vrana being a methodical goal-scorer isn’t a new concept, either, with his 5-on-5 P/60 of 2.23 placing him fourth on the Caps in 2018-19.
Vrana’s Corsi-for percentage is a respectable 52.62 percent, good for fourth among Capitals forwards with at least 15 games played at 5-on-5. His shooting percentage is currently an impressive 15.7, beating his career average of 13 percent and his previous best of 14.9 percent. His shots-per-60 at 5-on-5 of 11.86 is good for sixth league-wide, with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Travis Boyd sitting second among Caps forwards with 2.4. Just in case you weren’t convinced he’s money in the bank for the Caps, Vrana’s goals-above expected (per Money Puck) is 5.8 and his expected-goals-per-60 is 1.13, good for seventh in both categories.
Since Vrana started his current run of eight points in eight games, only Carlson (10) has more points than Vrana, despite the latter averaging just 15:55 a night. That’s the thing: Vrana has been efficient in the ice time he has received. Under Barry Trotz’s leadership in Washington, Vrana averaged just 11:48 in ice time and was never used in late-game situations – nothing out of the ordinary for a young forward. But Reirden has managed to get the most out of him with a bump to 14:23 over the past two seasons – that’ll increase as the season wears on.
League-wide, Vrana (14:02) led all players last season who averaged fewer than 15 minutes a night in goals (24) and even-strength goals (23). With 14 goals and an average ice time of 14:44, he’s tops in that department again. Only Florida’s Brett Connolly (12 goals, 14:43), and Arizona’s Conor Garland (10 goals, 13:28) can claim to have 10 goals with under 15 minutes played a night on average at all strengths. Vrana is 429th among skaters and 174th among forwards in average even-strength ice time (12:58) this season. Vrana’s ice time is quickly trending up, but this is a good indication that he deserves more opportunities.
So, yeah, it doesn’t take a scientist to realize Vrana brings immense value to the Capitals. At 23, Vrana hasn’t developed as quickly as other first-round picks in 2014 like Draisaitl, Pastrnak or Dylan Larkin, but the Capitals don’t need Vrana to mimic their production levels. And when the Caps drafted him, the goal was to always have him as the second-line left winger while Ovechkin did his usual dirty work on the top line. Besides, if your second-best option at any forward position is producing like Vrana is, you can’t possibly go wrong.
(Advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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