ESTERO, Fla. – The idea came to Troy Mann this summer before Washington Capitals development camp, when he scanned the roster of attending prospects, plucked out three in particular and seized an opportunity.
Center Chandler Stephenson had adopted a primarily checking-line and penalty-killing role under Mann with the Hershey Bears last season, but the coaching staff believed he had more firepower lurking beneath. Right winger Riley Barber was headed to the AHL this year, fresh from the collegiate ranks at Miami (Ohio) University, viewed by the organization as a top-six forward on an offensive line. And everyone understood the potential of left winger Jakub Vrana, the former first-round draft pick with the slick hands and bullet-train speed.
So, Mann reasoned, why not stick the trio together and see what happens?
“We’ll see how far it takes us,” Mann said. “But there’s some potential there.”
Through Sunday evening, after Washington’s prospects routed their counterparts from the Tampa Bay Lightning, 5-2, Mann hadn’t yet found a reason to separate his top line. Stephenson, Vrana and Barber worked together throughout development camp, then reunited for the three-game tournament here at Germain Arena, and according to their head coach should start the season together in Hershey too.
“Just the chemistry and knowing where each other on the ice, development camp helped a lot with that, just getting a feel for one another,” Stephenson said. “When you’re playing with guys like Barbs and Vrans, it’s easy to play with those guys and know where they are. Very skilled and can just do so much with the puck, make it very easy to play on their line. It’d be great to play with those guys, keep that chemistry going.”
They were dominant during their second game in Estero, dictating pace and dominating possession in the offensive zone, opening the scoring with a nifty display during the first period. Positioned along the boards near the benches, Barber slashed the puck ahead toward open ice, where Vrana dashed against Lightning defenseman Dylan Blujus. Shielding the puck from Blujus’s stick, the 19-year-old Czech steamed into the offensive zone and turned on the afterburners, finishing with a deke and a top-shelf strike over the blocker pad from close range.
During a film session earlier that day, Mann had chatted with Vrana about “less one-on-one play, using his linemates more.” Under those particular circumstances, though, the solo effort gave Washington an early 1-0 lead.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Barber said. “You see it in practice all the time. It’s not that surprising. I knew he was going to bury it.”
The oldest member of the line, by two months over Stephenson, Barber also holds the least AHL experience among them, since Stephenson logged 54 games for Hershey in 2014-15 and Vrana joined the Bears for three regular-season appearances and their 10-game playoff run. The former sixth-round pick left Miami after his junior season, signing his entry-level contract with the Capitals, and now found himself with a solid vote of confidence from his future coach.
“The opportunity I’m getting from Troy is awesome,” Barber said. “Couldn’t think of a better situation, playing with two players like that. I’m just trying to do everything I can to stay there.”
Until told otherwise, they all will.
“I think it’s only growing,” Barber said. “You play with people like that, especially great players like that, it takes a little bit of time, but once you get it clicking it rolls. We’re on the right path for sure.”