GLENDALE, Ariz. — When Jakub Vrana was just a hockey-loving boy in the Czech Republic, the NHL still a distant dream, his father would take him to national team practices for inspiration. He insisted they stay until every player was off the ice, and he made sure his son took note of those who were out there latest, working at their craft even as others had long left for the locker room.
The lesson was straightforward, and it’s stayed with Vrana: “He always tell me that if you want to be better than the other players, you have to work extra.”
Of the Washington Capitals, Vrana is almost always the last player off the ice, staying out so late that team equipment staffers occasionally have to plead that he wrap it up so they can finish their work for the day. Vrana changes up what he chooses to work on depending on how he feels his game is going, and while he still sees a lot that needs fine-tuning, the Capitals see an exciting young forward who has continued to get better.
With three goals in the past two games, Vrana now has nine goals with eight assists through 28 games, on pace to eclipse his 27-point total in 73 games last season. With wingers T.J. Oshie and Tom Wilson both out because of concussions, the team is counting on Vrana, suddenly the second-most-productive winger behind captain Alex Ovechkin, to help make up for some of the lost scoring. All of the extra work seems to be paying off.
“He’s a guy who spends a lot of time out there and works at his game, and I think it’s led to the consistency that he’s put together this year, continuing to get scoring chances every night and a valuable offensive asset for us,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “Always as a coach, you love someone who wants to be out there getting better.”
There tends to be an order to who comes off the ice when after practices. Veterans, particularly those who log the most minutes, come off quickest, and in Washington, Ovechkin typically leaves the ice first with center Nicklas Backstrom not far behind him. Bottom-six forwards or third-pairing defensemen, along with the backup goaltender, might stay on the ice longer to log the time they might not get in a game. The less established a player, the more he might want to make a good impression by practicing a little longer.
“For some, it might be a little bit of guilt,” center Lars Eller said with a chuckle. “In V’s case, he’s past that step now. . . . That’s the willingness to be better and not being satisfied.”
Entering Tuesday’s game against the Golden Knights, Vrana had been unhappy with his recent performances, particularly his wall play, so he worked on that after a practice in Las Vegas. He then asked defenseman Dmitry Orlov to shoot pucks toward the net and attempted to get his blade on them because tips and deflections could help when the two are on the power play together. If Vrana misses on a chance in a game, he’ll spend the next day practicing his shot from that same spot, a bucket of pucks beside him as he snaps one after another.
“Sometimes I just wait until everybody’s gone and I have the ice for myself,” Vrana said. “And then I can do my thing.”
Practices revolve around team play and system work, so Vrana gets to work on his individual skills when he stays on the ice after. He draws confidence from the routine — “It makes the game easier,” he said — and he has read about how Jaromir Jagr, the second-leading scorer in NHL history and a fellow Czech, would log extra on-ice sessions when no one else was around for the same reason.
Coaches occasionally will tell players they’re practicing too much and to save more energy for the game, but Reirden said the Capitals are “not there with [Vrana] right now; he’s still a young guy with lots of energy.” A 2014 first-round pick, Vrana is the last high-end forward the Capitals have drafted, and though he is only 22, he already has established himself in the team’s top-six corps.
“He’s just really maturing in front of our own eyes here and becoming a much better pro than he has been in the past,” Reirden said. “His speed is a factor. His release is great. He’s doing a lot of things to help us win games.”
But ask Vrana, and he’ll say that he should be stronger in battles or that his hands could move faster and his shots still miss the net too often. He learned long ago what it takes to be better.
“The longer you’re here, you feel more comfortable, but it’s also the same feeling as when you come here,” Vrana said. “You’ve still got to go and produce. You’re playing in the NHL for an NHL team, so you have to be good. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first year. Since my first game, I wanted to produce, and I didn’t blame that it was my first year or something. I just wanted to come here and dominate my game and play good and just try to do everything I can to be that way.”
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