After Thursday’s morning skate, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz announced that Jakub Vrana would be a healthy scratch for the first time this season in tonight’s game against the Colorado Avalanche.
Skating on a line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, Vrana started the 2017-18 season strong with five points in six games. Since then, Vrana has just two points (both goals) in his last thirteen contests, and he’s spent time with the first and third lines.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) November 16, 2017
“He’s not going to play tonight by the way. Just to let you know that,” Trotz said. “I’m going to pull him out tonight. He’s a good young player and I think he’s going to have a real good career. Just like all young players, there’s a difference between being involved and just participating. Right now, I feel, as a young player it’s a grind in this league, he’s in that participation mode rather than involvement mode.
“We’re going to have a talk. I have full confidence that he’s getting the message that it’s important to be there every night in terms of that involvement and that’s where his production will come about. He’s going to come out tonight and he’ll go back in.
“You have to earn your ice time and I feel like this is a good teaching moment for him.”
On Wednesday, something seemed off as Vrana was removed from the team’s second unit power play in favor of Chandler Stephenson. According to the Washington Post’s Isabelle Khurshudyan, Vrana spent a half hour on the ice by himself after practice ended.
Around 30 mins after practice wrapped, Jakub Vrana was still on the ice working on his game alone.
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) November 15, 2017
Trotz made the benching official when he called Vrana out in the media and referred to the scratch as a “good teaching moment.”
It is not a big deal when a non-superstar player is scratched for one game. But this decision – at this point in the season, with the team direly lacking offense – is bizarre. And it ignores a coaching history that has repeatedly failed with the Czech winger.
Look at Vrana’s season last year. Coming into 2016-17, the 13th overall pick from the 2014 Draft should have competed for a roster spot in Washington. Instead, the Capitals’ strong forward depth plus a surprise preseason performance from Zach Sanford pushed Vrana to the minors.
Vrana started off strong with Hershey, scoring nine goals in 18 games. On December 1, Vrana received his dream promotion to DC. At that point, he ranked third in AHL goalscoring. And just five games into his NHL career, Vrana scored his first goal in the best league in the world.
“I mean it’s the greatest feeling, you know?” Vrana said then. “Two games before, I had so many shots on net. It just didn’t go in. I’m so happy this one go in.”
Vrana remained a constant in Washington’s lineup through a December 27 game against the New York Islanders. After Vrana went five games without a point, head coach Barry Trotz put the forward in his doghouse and had this to say:
“We’re going to do what’s best for the player,” Trotz said, before calling out the player. “We’re not in a development league, we’re in a winning league.”
Vrana, who looked comfortable at the NHL level, was demoted several days later. Vrana did not return to his earlier form. He was in a funk for the rest of the season. He scored four goals in 15 AHL games and was called up again two months later. At a February 17 practice, Vrana was confused by his promotion after being recently benched in Hershey by Troy Mann.
“I don’t know where my game is right now,” Vrana said. “I get scratched last week [in Hershey] and now I’m in Washington.”
A week later, Vrana suited up with the Caps again, scoring two goals and three points in nine games as a fill-in for the injured Andre Burakovsky. Once the the Swedish forward returned, Vrana was sent back to the minors and finished the season with Hershey. In the postseason, Vrana played in only seven of the team’s 12 games. In the first round, Vrana was scratched and needled by Troy Mann in the media.
— Ross Lippman (@Ross_Lippy) April 30, 2017
“I mean, I think, you know, I thought he was okay,” a critical Mann said after the team’s final game of the year. “I thought he was average. He has some spurts there, you could see the speed there. But, you know, it was a tough year for him at this level for whatever reason.
“I’m gonna have to say it’s been a tough year here for him,” Mann continued. “He was up and down quite a bit. Just inconsistent play. Hopefully he can correct as he moves forward. Maybe it’s in Washington, maybe it’s back here. I’m not sure. He’s the one that’s going to answer that in terms of his play.”
Vrana had no points and three shots in seven games during the Bears’ playoff run. He was arguably the team’s most talented player. Mann made the decision to not play him.
Fast-forward to this seeason, Vrana started strong much like he did last year. Despite his dashboard stats lagging recently, Vrana has continued to push play. He’s been one of the team’s best possession players all season long.
Here’s what Trotz is benching: pic.twitter.com/IbU2Wt1syb
— Sebastian Enders (@sebenders) November 16, 2017
Individually, Vrana is a prolific shooter. During 5-on-5 play this season, he’s averaged 13.5 shot attempts per hour, behind only Ovi, Burakovsky, and Eller. For context, that’s about identical to Justin Williams’ 2017-18, in which he scored 24 goals. And Vrana’s output isn’t buoyed by perimeter shots; based on the profile of his on-ice offense, we should expect Vrana to have the highest 5-on-5 goal rate on the whole team.
By way of hockeyviz, you can see how many the shots the Caps take from around the faceoff circles and down low while Vrana’s on the ice.
And to Trotz’s credit, he has given given Vrana a prolonged and consistent chance. Vrana’s time on ice has been pretty stable for the first month of the season.
One scratch is not a big deal, but this situation suggests that Barry Trotz is like Troy Mann: he doesn’t know the right buttons to press with this player, and his evaluation doesn’t match the player’s on-ice performance. Benching Vrana doesn’t solve anything, and even if it did, whatever problem that was wouldn’t be in the top ten of what’s plaguing the Capitals this fall.
In related news, Nathan Walker returns to the lineup tonight.
Peter Hassett and Patrick Holden also contributed to this article.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.