WASHINGTON – After a win at Capital One Arena, Jakub Vrana approached his teammates in the locker room. He mimicked Evgeny Kuznetsov's breakaway shot that sealed the game in overtime. Vrana's smoothie lurched precariously in his hand as he twisted the barrel of an imaginary stick, burying the puck somewhere in the distance.
"It was sick," he said of the goal, grinning. In his second full season with Washington,
Vrana, who turned 23 last month, seems to have found his footing.
He has become a staple of Washington's top six, averaging 14:09 time on ice per game this season. Vrana is currently averaging almost twice his points per game compared to last year's stats, on pace for about 49 points after netting 27 in the previous season. He isn't alone in this increase.
Across the league, a group of young players have pushed their point total by as much as twice the previous season's tally.
Calgary Flames assistant captain Matthew Tkachuk has leaped from 49 points last season to a projected 80. Montreal's Jonathan Drouin is a little older in his fourth full NHL season, but is now on pace for 60 points after 46 last year.
So how did the jump happen for so these young players this season? Is there a secret sauce, a magic formula? Is it just more experience? Have they found a larger spot to contribute? All the above?
Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen, on pace for a 20-point increase and heading for his first 100-point season in his third full NHL campaign, was stumped. "I don't know the reason why it's like that, but it is happening."
Looking for answers
For Colorado's JT Compher, the pattern in point production is familiar. Compher, who left the University of Michigan in 2016 after his junior year, put up 31, then 21, then a whopping 63 points in the NCAA. He's on pace for 38 points this year, up significantly from 23 last season.
"You take stuff throughout junior hockey, college hockey, stuff you learned, and that's what kinda shapes you as a player," Compher said. "Obviously you get to the NHL and the knowledge is expanded by a lot."
Tkachuk praised his background with the OHL's London Knights for getting him adjusted to a rigorous schedule that allows him to start the first stretch of a season strong.
"If you have a good summer and you keep that going for as long as possible, I think it can translate easily to the first little bit of the season. It's all about how you start."
Vrana also constantly develops his work ethic.
"I feel like I'm a good player, and that I can take those chances, but of course it takes lots of work. You just gotta work hard every day and focus on the details."
To Vrana, the attitude of his coaches makes all the difference. "It's all in trust, you know? We have different coaches here who believe in me way more, give me way more opportunity to show what I can do."
And, of course, his teammates.
"In this team, we have lots of veteran guys, who do a really good job with the young guys, [with] making hockey fun for me and for themselves."
Colorado head coach Jared Bednar believes that cultivating a positive environment is central to team dynamic and player growth.
"I think happy hockey players and players that are gonna have fun are productive hockey players," Bednar said after practice in Washington. "I want our guys to come with a positive mindset and reset every day."
The effect of Bednar's approach is instantly recognizable.
Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog taps Rantanen encouragingly after a great shot in practice, while locker room neighbor Alexander Kerfoot crashes Compher's interview, tapping him on the shoulder.
"Just telling [them] that you learn from me," Kerfoot quips. "I'm the professional."
Compher rolls his eyes and shoves the ball of sock tape back at him.
All four players say that part of the improvement can't be analyzed. It's just in the process of growing up.
"I think third year [in the league] you're comfortable with training camp, you're comfortable with the city, you know?" Tkachuk said. "You don't really need to overthink things too much. Nothing's really new."
"It's hard to do damage in your first year," Rantanen echoed. "I think the second or third year you feel more comfortable, especially third when you already have over 200 games, you know, you don't really think about it too much anymore. You think about it as another game, and just enjoying it."
Behind the bright lights, it makes sense. Young, early-twenties professionals in other jobs typically experience some personal growth as they learn to understand their field and find their place. Why should hockey be different?
"Finding your role on the team as well, getting comfortable with the minutes you're playing, who you're playing with, the system – all that stuff comes with playing more games," Compher explained. "I think it's why you're seeing guys in their second or third season take off a little more."
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