The breakthrough season has come and gone and now the waiting game begins for Jakub Vrana.
The Capitals need young talent to make a leap if they're going to prop open the championship window they hope still has a few years left yet. Vrana scored a career-high 24 goals this season and spent most of it on the second line at left wing. The 2014 first-round pick is living up to that choice. But as a restricted free agent, his contract status needs to be clarified this summer. For now, that remains up in the air as Vrana enters his third NHL season.
"I'm going to talk to my agent and like I said I'm going to talk to Washington," Vrana said last month. "We're going to discuss what's going to happen over the summer and prepare for next season. So we will see."
There are multiple avenues to pursue. Vrana could sign a long-term deal like teammates Tom Wilson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Dmitry Orlov have done recently. Vrana has four years to go as a restricted free agent. Kuznetsov signed the maximum eight-year contract. Wilson went with six. Orlov agreed to five.
Kuznetsov, Wilson and Orlov were all two years away from unrestricted free agency when they signed. Vrana could do a two-year bridge deal to get a nice raise off his three-year entry-level contract. Or he could choose to go for four years to maximize his free agent earnings at a younger age. Or the two sides could lock in a deal as long as eight years that would take Vrana until he is 31.
Those calculations involve what Vrana thinks he can do in Washington the next few years. He had 24 goals and 23 assists (47 points) in his age 22/23 season. He is blocked from the top power play for now because of the talent in front of him, but he is guaranteed to play on a line with either Kuznetsov or Nicklas Backstrom as his center. Imagine what Vrana could get two years from now if he pushes closer to the 30-goal range or above? It's not that big a jump now.
"We'll have some decisions to make," general manager Brian MacLellan said. "We'll find out which direction we're going on Vrana with a term deal or a bridge deal. Some of it is money decisions. Some of it's we need to make a couple changes."
Vrana's last month of hockey shows the risk and the reward. He didn't produce in the Stanley Cup playoffs going without a point in the seven-game first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes. That was disappointing.
"Yeah it's a hard one. I don't know that we have an answer to it," MacLellan said. "We missed that energy, that speed and the goal scoring in the playoffs for sure."
Vrana admitted he was injured during the playoffs, but not so bad that he couldn't play. He was repeatedly seen in the locker room walking around with an ice bag on his shoulder. But after a few weeks off, he has made an immediate impact for the Czech Republic at the IIHF World Championships in Slovakia.
Vrana scored two goals on Friday against Sweden, including a beautiful snipe reminiscent of his goal in Game 5 against the Vegas Golden Knights when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2018. Vrana added an assist on Saturday in a 7-2 win over Norway.
As a rookie, Vrana had three goals and five assists in 23 Stanley Cup playoff games. He is one of just 23 players in the NHL who began this past season age 22 or younger who had 24 goals. He is one of 34 players that age or younger with 47 points. That's pretty good company. But there's room to grow.
Vrana's playoff no-show is concerning and the Capitals are again in a salary-cap crunch, but both sides expect to work out some kind of deal. The question is whether Vrana wants to bet on himself or take the long-term security now. Either way, Washington needs him to take another step forward in 2019-20 as its top players like Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie pass well into their 30s. That Stanley Cup window stays open a little longer if Vrana can pull it off.
"During the regular season, it's a good experience for me," Vrana said. "Another year in the NHL with this group of guys. It's unbelievable. Still hopeful for me. I'm looking forward for next season."
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