PHILADELPHIA — Jakub Vrana wore a red Washington Capitals sweater — numbered 14 for the year of his NHL draft class — and a shimmering smile, never wider than when a cell phone was passed into his hands. A public relations director whispered into Vrana’s ear. “Really?” the teenage winger asked. Yes, really. Alex Ovechkin was on the line. The face of the franchise wanted to say hello.
“What’s up?” Vrana said. The grin never left his face. “Not much. I was just drafted by the Washington Capitals.”
Moments before, Vrana had met reporters for the first time as a member of the Capitals organization, picked No. 13 overall at Wells Fargo Center. He talked about new beginnings and how moving away from home at age 15 to pursue a professional hockey career had prepared him for the unknown. He recalled the recent stateside flight for the NHL combine, team interviews and Friday night’s draft and how it was the first time his mother had ridden on an airplane. He reflected on learning English because spending three seasons in the Swedish Hockey League meant “you need to ask for food.”
“I just wait until someone say my name, and when it happened, I was so happy and feel like something new starts and just try to do everything to make the team,” Vrana said.
Back in his native Czech Republic, the 18-year-old lefty spent his formative years skating at a rink owned by former Capitals defenseman Frantisek Kucera, whose brother Vojtech works for Washington as a scout. Years later, when Kucera’s organization followed up on that old connection, Vrana had blossomed into Europe’s fourth-best skater for this draft class, according to NHL Central Scouting. He comes to the Capitals from Linkoping in the SHL, where he played 24 games last season and registered two goals, though he succeeded most with the organization’s junior squads and with the Czech Republic’s under-18 national team.
“He can really fire the puck,” Capitals rookie General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “[Our scouts] refer to him as a sniper.”
Though the Capitals have emphasized their need for defensemen and an upgrade at second-line center this offseason, they stuck with the club’s standard practice of selecting the best-available option, regardless of position. Vrana is the seventh straight European drafted by Washington with its first pick. The last North American drafted by the Capitals in the first round was Karl Alzner (No. 5 in 2007).
“That’s not a conscious effort,” MacLellan said.
Despite rumors of a possible trade, Florida kept the top overall pick and selected Ontario Hockey League defenseman Aaron Ekblad, the first blue-liner drafted No. 1 since 2006 (Erik Johnson by St. Louis). Center Sam Reinhart went second to Buffalo, and Edmonton took Leon Draisaitl third, making him the highest-drafted German in history. The first mid-draft trade came about an hour into the festivities, with Nashville obtaining forward James Neal from the Penguins for forwards Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling.
During that time, MacLellan had been trying to package his second-round pick (44th overall) to move up so the Capitals could draft defenseman Haydn Fleury, one of the highest-rated players on Washington’s board. Once Fleury went No. 7 to the Hurricanes, which surprised MacLellan, the Capitals immediately turned their attention to Vrana.
“It was fun trying to [move up],” MacLellan said, adding that Vrana’s future placement within the organization — or elsewhere — would be determined by his development camp performance. “Then when we couldn’t do that, we were content to make our pick where we were.”
When his name was called, Vrana hugged his parents and began walking toward the stage, where MacLellan, Coach Barry Trotz, assistant general manager Ross Mahoney and others were waiting. Known primarily for his hard shot and skating speed, Vrana notched eight goals in seven games at the under-18 world championships this season, carrying with him a scoring knack — and a zeal for the aftermath — he hopes can help him reach the NHL.
“You never know when it’s going to be your last goal,” he said. “You have to celebrate it.”
Before long, Vrana found himself standing inside the tunnel in the arena. Nearby were the children who begged for his autographs. Piped through the phone was Ovechkin, offering congratulations.
“Yes,” Vrana replied. “It will be really nice to see you.”