When Barry Trotz benched Jakub Vrana nearly two weeks against the Colorado Avalanche, the coach said it was because the young Capitals forward was in “participation mode.” The benching was a message that Vrana had to get more aggressive on the ice.
With three goals in his last three games, Vrana seems to have gotten the word.
Vrana, the Capitals’ first-round pick in 2014, scored two goals last Wednesday against the Ottawa Senators and then scored again Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They were his first goals since Nov. 10 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“As coaches, our job is to make the players better and to be honest with them, give them a roadmap,” Trotz said. “It’s up to them to really follow the roadmap. Sometimes they veer off a little bit, and you try to pull them back in. But V’s been pretty good. I think he trusts our staff, myself, that we want him to be the player that he can be.”
A line change has also helped Vrana. The Czech forward was paired with Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. Vrana opened the season playing with Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, but was demoted to the third line once the line’s production dropped.
With Kuznetsov and Oshie, Vrana said he benefitted from both being great playmakers. Oshie added the line changes were a wake-up call to the whole team, who have won three in a row since the switch.
“Sometimes when you’re young, you overthink things,” Oshie said of Vrana. “You want to do the systems right and you kind of forget, you’ve got to move your feet and you’ve got to battle first and foremost. [Against Ottawa] he did that. … You can see the talent he has.”
In training camp, the Capitals wanted at least one of their younger forwards to emerge after losing Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams in free agency. Vrana stepped up, earning a spot in the Capitals’ top six. After playing 21 games with the Capitals last year in two separate stints, Vrana has already surpassed that mark in his second NHL season.
But the 21-year-old hit a wall. Trotz said he asked Vrana to observe the Avalanche game through the lense of what it would take to be effective in the NHL and for the Capitals, not just himself. The Capitals lost 6-2, but the point was made. Vrana returned to the lineup for Washington’s next game.
Trotz said Vrana has a “good window” for a young player, but added he was reverting to what got him to the NHL instead of trying to expand his game. Vrana, Trotz said, needed “a little shot just to get their attention.”
Vrana has been benched before — in the American Hockey League playoffs, no less. Hershey coach Troy Mann sat Vrana for five of the Bears’ 12 playoff games. After the season, Mann told reporters Vrana was “average” and inconsistent during his time in Hershey. Vrana went without a point in the playoffs, too.
Against Ottawa, Trotz said Vrana’s performance was a glimpse of how effective he can be without the puck, as long as he’s moving offensively as much as he is defensively. The Capitals coach said Vrana’s got all the tools — the speed and the shot — to be effective in the NHL.
“It’s hard work, you know?” Vrana said. “You’ve just got to keep working hard and doing extra things. You’re just going to do it until it pays off.”