MONTREAL — There is a job opening on the right side of Alex Ovechkin and center Evgeny Kuznetsov, and 21-year-old Jakub Vrana applied Wednesday night at Bell Centre. His new Russian linemates spoke their native tongue to him under the assumption that it was close enough to Vrana’s Czech, and when it came to responding, “I try my best,” Vrana said.
The communication might need some work, but the on-ice chemistry could land Vrana a coveted top-six role beside those two. Coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday that he intends to start the season with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov on a line together and have center Nicklas Backstrom and winger T.J. Oshie on another. Andre Burakovsky seems poised to play on the left wing of Backstrom and Oshie, and the competition to be on the right side of Ovechkin and Kuznetsov seems to be between Vrana, Tom Wilson and Brett Connolly.
Considering that Trotz likes how Vrana plays with other high-skilled players and his impressive play in the Capitals’ 4-2 preseason win against the Canadiens, he appears to be the front-runner.
“I thought Vrana created a lot of chances,” Trotz said. “His speed was noticeable. There’s little nuances in his game that we can teach. But with his speed, he had a couple chances right off the bat. He had some good looks; got to hit the net though. He missed the net a couple times.”
On a power play in the first period, Vrana wasn’t even trying to hit the net, backhanding a pass to Kuznetsov on a give-and-go, but the puck deflected off a Montreal defender’s stick for a goal. With 13 penalties called in the game, Vrana’s five-on-five time with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov was limited, but “when we have opportunities, I think we have pretty good chances,” Ovechkin said.
“We played fast today,” Vrana said. “We had some passes today, some chances. It’s always a good sign when you have chances. … You’re going to be confident when you play with guys like this. You’re just going to be confident on the ice with the puck. Just play fast and build some chemistry there.”
The Capitals drafted Vrana 13th overall in 2014, penciling him in to make his transition to full-time NHL duty this season. With the offseason departures of forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams due to salary cap constraints, Washington is counting on Vrana, still on his inexpensive entry-level deal, to help replace some of the lost goal production. In 21 games with the Capitals last season, Vrana recorded three goals and three assists.
But when Vrana returned to the American Hockey League to end the season, he struggled and was even a healthy scratch during the Calder Cup playoffs. Trotz said Vrana’s game might just be better suited for the skill of the NHL, and he gave him the opportunity to play with two of the most skilled players in the league Wednesday night.
“He gets to space,” Trotz said. “He gets on the puck because he moves his legs and his speed is noticeable. Kuzy can get him the puck, and getting down ice, he can put some pressure to create a forecheck, too. He worked hard today, and I think we keep putting him with top players, because we think he’s going to be a top player.”
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