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A ‘happy kid’ at heart, Jakub Vrana is growing up with the Capitals

Jakub Vrana has three goals and three assists in six games this season. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Jakub Vrana came off the ice at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility Saturday afternoon, casually looked up and flashed a wide smile at the onlookers above. It’s hard to find a moment when the 24-year-old Czech winger isn’t grinning, joking or genuinely enjoying himself.

He can’t help it. Vrana describes himself as a “happy kid” who loves hockey, likes to have fun, laugh and then laugh some more. He knows the Capitals’ fan base views him the same way.

“I mean, first off, when you are just looking at my face, I mean, I look like [a kid] a little bit,” the babyfaced Vrana said with a chuckle. “You can’t do anything about that.”

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His escapades with teammates in the days after winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 are also enduring examples of that “kid” persona — the photos and videos from those nights still frequently surface on social media. His permanent personal reminder is the Stanley Cup tattoo he got on his left wrist while holding former goaltender Braden Holtby’s hand.

“I wake up and I didn’t even know I had it,” Vrana said recently. “I looked at my arm the next morning, and it was there.”

A month from his 25th birthday, Vrana isn’t a kid in the hockey world anymore. The Capitals’ 2014 first-round draft pick is in his fourth full NHL season and is being shaped into a critical piece of the organization.

“Jake Vrana is part of that [leadership] group,” Coach Peter Laviolette said. “He’s not a kid anymore. … His hand is on the rope.”

Vrana has three goals and three assists in six games this season, finding the scoresheet in all but one game. He has a lot to prove; his two-year, $6.7 million contract expires at the end of the season, at which point he will become a restricted free agent.

Vrana has been tasked with top-line duties the past two games after four players, including forwards Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, were forced out of the lineup because of the NHL’s coronavirus protocols. Add to the mix the lower-body injury forward Tom Wilson suffered Friday, and Vrana’s importance only has grown.

“It’s been four or five years for me now [with the team], and I mean, my role, I want to be a leader,” Vrana said. “I want to step up in the big moments.”

Vrana’s tattoo, which depicts the Stanley Cup with two sticks and three stars, is a reminder of how far he has come. Yet it also is a reminder of how far he needs to go. He has set career highs in goals in each of the past two seasons, but he produced zero points in 15 games in the 2019 and 2020 playoffs.

When asked earlier this season to talk about his past postseason performances or the 2018 Cup run, he offered a reminder that he is focused on what’s ahead.

“Whatever happened already happened,” Vrana said. “That’s what I was talking about, the mind-set. You can’t change it anymore. You are not headed backwards. You are headed forwards. You are heading to your future.”

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The importance of a proper mind-set to Vrana was solidified in November 2019, when he and Capitals great Peter Bondra were sitting side-by-side at an autograph session, chatting about scoring goals.

The night before against Buffalo, Vrana had scored twice, and fans were talking about how he almost had a hat trick. As Bondra recalled, he could sense Vrana’s exasperation, so he started teasing him to lighten the mood.

There was talk of how Bondra scored 503 goals in his career, which was “pretty good,” Vrana remarked, and how Bondra tallied 19 hat tricks during his 16-year NHL career. When Vrana noted he hadn’t yet managed one, Bondra asked why.

“What is stopping you from scoring a hat trick?” Bondra asked. “You’re going to have three to four scoring chances. Just do it.”

“You just need to imagine it, and it will happen,” Vrana recalls Bondra telling him.

On his ride home, Vrana started to envision his first hat trick. Twenty-four hours later, he scored three goals in a 4-2 win over the Calgary Flames.

“He doesn’t know what he is capable of,” Bondra said.

Vrana is still working on his craft, focusing mainly on improving his strength and conditioning. Playing at his best also includes keeping a clear mind. In the offseason, he went home to the Czech Republic to be with family for an extended amount of time for the first time in several years.

“Just being home [was good],” Vrana said. “We were just around each other, and that’s the most important thing — the people around you.”

The people around Vrana during the season are equally important. He might not be the No. 1 player on the ice or in the dressing room at all times, but his role, his place on the team and his continued growth are all under his control.

“Of course I have grown. I have gone through some things, but I am not going to change myself. … Your personality, you cannot change that,” Vrana said. “You are still going to be a positive kid that loves playing hockey and bringing people what they want. And year by year, you are developing yourself.”