PHILADELPHIA — Presented a puck rimmed with white tape noting his milestone, forward Jakub Vrana was too awed to pretend it wasn’t a big deal to him.
“I didn’t know you got one for scoring 20 goals, but I’m going to have it in a safe place back home for sure,” he said.
And just in case the 23-year-old had any notion of shrugging off the achievement, his Washington Capitals teammates made sure it got its proper due, from T.J. Oshie snagging the keepsake puck during Tuesday night’s game to the stick taps Vrana garnered before Wednesday’s practice.
Vrana dreamed about this sort of thing for years, starting from those long days at the rink as a kid. And while he can feel pride whenever he takes a minute to reflect, he hasn’t allowed himself to relish it too much.
“I’ve never been really satisfied with my game,” he said. “Like right now, it’s huge. I’ve got 20 goals, and I mean, it’s not easy. You’ve got to really work hard, and obviously, your teammates and your linemates are helping you a lot. But I always want to get more and more. I can never have enough.
“I’m happy I make that mark of 20 goals, but for me, it’s not the end.”
Can this be considered a breakout season if it’s just his second one? Vrana has 21 goals and 22 assists through 70 games, a stable member of the Capitals’ top-six forward corps. His future in Washington is bright, and how many years that is and at what cost will be decided this summer because Vrana’s entry-level contract expires after this season.
The two sides have had some initial discussions, but with his negotiating rights resting with the Capitals for the foreseeable future, there’s no rush to get a deal done. General Manager Brian MacLellan said in January that he would be comfortable signing Vrana, Washington’s top restricted free agent priority, to a long-term deal.
“He’s an offensive-skilled guy that we’re just starting what he can do in the NHL,” MacLellan said then. “We want to have him around for a long time.”
The salary cap hit will be largely dependent on term: While MacLellan might want something north of four years, Vrana’s camp could prefer a bridge deal of two or three years, especially if they’re betting on his production continuing to climb. One comparable deal could be the one forward Alex Tuch signed with the Vegas Golden Knights before this season. Like Vrana, Tuch was a first-round draft pick in 2014, and after scoring 15 goals with 22 assists in 78 games last season and then six goals with four assists in 20 playoff games en route to the Stanley Cup finals, Tuch got a seven-year, $33.25 million contract that carries an annual cap hit of $4.75 million.
Traditionally, the longer the contract, the lower the average annual value is, but with young, skilled players, teams pay for projections as well as shaving off unrestricted free agent seasons. An NHL player is eligible to hit the open market after he turns 27 or plays at least seven seasons, so in Vrana’s case, he has five more seasons after this one under team control. Washington typically spends to the salary cap ceiling, and that’s projected to be $83 million next year, a $3.5 million increase. That should give the Capitals some added flexibility, especially if they also want to re-sign any of their pending unrestricted free agent forwards in Brett Connolly, Nic Dowd and Carl Hagelin.
“A contract year, obviously at some point it’s in your head,” Vrana said. “You know it’s an important year, but last year was important, too. It’s not just about that one year. It’s about every year in the NHL that you want to produce and you want to be the top player and show that you can play and what skills you’ve got.”
Maybe the breakout was last postseason, Vrana’s first taste of the playoffs and a run that ended with him hoisting the Stanley Cup as a rookie. After being a healthy scratch for a game in Washington’s first-round series against Columbus, Vrana hasn’t been out of the lineup since, working his way into the top-six forward corps to mostly play beside center Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie. As arguably the fastest skater on the team, he is a good complement to them, but with that trio typically tasked with the most challenging defensive assignment, Vrana had to round out his game.
“Despite his offensive numbers, I think his biggest growth has been defensively,” Oshie said. “We saw what he could do on offense in kind of spurts in the past and then kind of since last year, maybe the last half of the year, you saw his defensive play growing. Through that, I think it creates more offense for him. He gets himself into better spots so that when we do turn the puck over, he can use his speed and make a difference out there.”
Sitting in the visiting locker room at Wells Fargo Center after Wednesday’s practice in Philadelphia, Vrana was asked what he personally wanted to accomplish entering this season. Before he could answer, forward Andre Burakovsky replied from the next stall over: “Twenty goals.”
“I pretty much just wanted to have fun,” Vrana said. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I just want to play with a clear head.”