Jakub Vrana rubbed his hands over his face and sighed, struggling to come up with a definitive answer to the question. You see, Vrana’s surprising offensive tear means everyone wants to know the correct way to say his name, and Vrana insists he doesn’t have a preference between the Czech “Ya-kub,” or the Americanized “Jacob.” He’s also added “Ya-koob” and “Jake” as acceptable variations.
“Whatever,” Vrana finally said with a smile and a shrug.
As a rookie with the Capitals, Vrana is still reserved, even around his teammates, who affectionately call him “V.” Enter center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who’s made it his personal mission to help Vrana relax and get comfortable. Their connection is also the reason Vrana’s name has been coming up so often lately.
Washington’s long had the dynamic duo of center Nicklas Backstrom and superstar winger Alex Ovechkin, but perhaps a new, younger version has started to bond. Kuznetsov and Vrana have been on the ice together for nine Capitals goals dating back to when Coach Barry Trotz paired them on a line 12 games ago. With his goal against the Boston Bruins Thursday, Vrana has reached the 10-goal plateau, the first Washington rookie to do that since — you guessed it — Kuznetsov in the 2014-15 season.
“I just think if you have some relationships and you have a little bit of a friendship and you’re on the same line, you want to do well,” Trotz said. “So you try to help each other and you grow a little bit of a bond.”
Kuznetsov is considered the Capitals’ most creative player with his unique vision and awareness on the ice, so when Trotz has noticed Kuznetsov often chatting with Vrana on the bench, Trotz figured Kuznetsov is just “coaching him along.” In reality, hockey is the last thing Kuznetsov wants to talk about with Vrana. Though Kuznetsov is in his fourth full NHL season, he’s just four years older than Vrana, not quite comfortable with the “mentor” title in their relationship.
“My part is probably just trying to be me,” Kuznetsov said, and that means maintaining his reputation as the team’s resident joker. Vrana said he tries to stay focused on the game when Kuznetsov begins his comedy routine on the bench, “but he’s funny. I like that.”
“They’ll have a couple chuckles, too, there’s no question,” Trotz said.
“I never talk about hockey with him,” Kuznetsov said. “He don’t need it. We have coaches, we have everyone else. Sometimes when the game’s not going well, he’s going so deep and he’s thinking about that, that’s when my part of the job comes in. Just have to give him joke or whatever. … He’s worrying that he made a mistake or whatever. I always tell him, ‘Hey, that’s OK.'”
When Vrana went through a scoring slump earlier in the season, Trotz made him a healthy scratch and criticized the 21-year-old for being in “participation mode.” Vrana played in 21 games with the Capitals last season, but when he started to struggle, the team sent him back to the American Hockey League, where he was then scratched in two playoff games. Because Vrana is still waivers-exempt, Washington doesn’t risk another team swiping him if the organization chooses to re-assign him to the minors, so he doesn’t have the same security as some other rookies.
But rather than let the November scratch and the stress of his standing on the team derail his season like it might have a year ago, Vrana responded well. He’s scored six goals and recorded two assists in the 14 games since, and the 24-goal pace he’s on has been a welcome surprise after Washington parted with top-six forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams in the offseason.
“I’m not putting my head in the trash there,” Vrana said. “I tried to keep going and build my confidence up.”
Vrana and Kuznetsov are two of the Capitals’ fastest players, so their speed naturally complements each other. But there’s more to their successful partnership. Once considered a defensive liability, Kuznetsov has improved his two-way play to the point that he’s encouraged Vrana to take chances on the ice because if there’s a turnover, Kuznetsov can cover for him. “Just dangle guys, I’ve got backcheck,” he told him.
“Obviously, V has a ton of speed and skill, and he’s using it offensively, which is a good thing,” goaltender Braden Holtby said. “I think Kuzy can control the puck, and with V still young and inexperienced, Kuzy’s helping him with just coming back, slowing things down, getting it out of the [defensive] zone, making sure he’s a pass option at times. Kuzy’s speed can get back if we do end up making a mistake or whatever. I think he’s taking it as a big challenge for him and he’s doing a fantastic job with more of a leadership role with V and letting him use his skill when he can.”
Said Kuznetsov: “If you’re not going to try to do something on the ice, it’s tough to learn. That’s how he got confidence, you know? It’s easy to put pressure on him, but it’s tough to help him. I mean, mentally you’ve got to find a way how to talk with him, and you see the results.”
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