OTTAWA — Let’s say the game’s not going well, and Evgeny Kuznetsov can sense Jakub Vrana getting tense next to him on the bench. Kuznetsov knows just how to relax his new 21-year-old linemate: He’ll say something funny to Vrana in Russian; Vrana will respond in his native Czech. Typically, a lot gets lost in translation, and both players end up laughing.
“And then the next shift, we just play in the offensive zone and create some offensive chances,” Kuznetsov said. “I think that helps him.”
The NHL might be the most international of North America’s top professional sports leagues. The Capitals alone have players who hail from nine countries. But on the ice, one language is established among teammates — usually. Washington’s trio of Alex Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Vrana regularly uses two.
“He speak Russian to me, and when I don’t understand, I speak back the Czech with him, right?” Vrana said. “We don’t even understand each other, but we just keep going. And then it gets a little intense.”
And is Ovechkin following along? “I have no idea,” Vrana admitted.
There must be method to the madness with how the three came together in the Capitals’ 5-4 season-opening win against the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night. In addition to Ovechkin’s hat trick, Vrana finished two assists, five shots on goal and a plus-three rating in the line’s first stint together. Entering Saturday night’s home opener against the Montreal Canadiens, the Capitals hope this is the season that Vrana, the organization’s 2014 first-round pick, transitions from being a top prospect to a full-time NHLer, and it’s on Ovechkin and Kuznetsov to aid in that process.
Kuznetsov, 25, doesn’t quite consider himself a mentor to Vrana, just four years his junior. “I’m not one of the older guys. Come on,” Kuznetsov bristled. But Kuznetsov tells Vrana jokes in Russian to lighten the mood when a game starts to feel too serious.
“It’s just funny, you know?” Kuznetsov said. “Sometimes you need to relax a little bit. Some players, they’re too focused. Sometimes they’re not smiling. I like V. He’s always smiling, so even if something bad happen, he always positive. That’s good thing about him.”
During his first three years in the league, Kuznetsov discovered that stressing about his play only made him play worse because the negativity went against his naturally cheerful disposition. As Kuznetsov worked through a slump at the start of last season, he tried to find ways to lift his own spirits in games that weren’t going his way. In one game last season, he put a puck in his mouth and then dropped it into the hands of a linesman before a faceoff.
Perhaps his Russian jokes to Vrana are funny for both players because Vrana comprehends only bits and pieces of them.
“He understands right away,” Kuznetsov said.
“I kind of know what he’s saying,” Vrana said sheepishly. “I would say sometimes it’s really hard when he speak very fast.”
It’s natural that Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are more comfortable speaking their native Russian to each other on the ice. When Vrana was added to their line, they figured Czech was close enough.
“There is some level of mutual intelligibility between all Slavic languages,” said Malgorzata Cavar, an assistant professor of linguistics at Indiana University.”A huge percentage of vocabulary can be traced back to common Slavic roots but there are differences in pronunciation, grammar, and lots of ‘false friends,’ words that sound similar but mean something different.”
Vrana said when Kuznetsov is directing him on the ice, such as before a faceoff, it’s in English. If Vrana has to say something in Czech, Kuznetsov said he gets the gist.
“When we talk about hockey, if he speaks, I listen,” Kuznetsov said. “If I speak, he listens. It’s kind of usually one-way when one of us kind of saw something on the ice. … If something happen and he’s trying to explain to me, I already saw it, so it’s easy to understand it.”
That’s why Coach Barry Trotz sees Kuznetsov as one mentor for Vrana, even if Kuznetsov doesn’t view their relationship that way. “Kuzy is one of the most intelligent players in the league,” Trotz said.
Vrana made his NHL debut last season, playing in 21 games with Washington, and while he showed flashes of the skill and speed that could be an asset to the Capitals’ lineup, he was also inconsistent. By the end of the season, Vrana was back in the American Hockey League, at one point scratched for a playoff game there.
After salary cap constraints forced the departures of top-six forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, the Capitals are looking to Vrana to be an inexpensive way of replacing some of that production because he’s still on his entry-level contract. As a way of showing Vrana that the team projects him to be a top player, Trotz paired him with two of the team’s top players.
He’s even starting to speak their language.
“That’s a pretty good position for a young guy,” Trotz said. “I think you should just smile and go, ‘I can’t believe I’m playing with two pretty good players. I should be pretty productive.’ I’m hoping he takes that attitude. I’m hoping those two other guys are excited to have someone who’s young and enthusiastic that will help them along as well.”
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