- The Washington Times - Friday, January 11, 2019

ARLINGTON, Va. — Washington Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan expects to begin contract extension talks with Jakub Vrana and his camp sometime during January, and he is comfortable with giving the winger a long-term contract rather than a “bridge” deal.

MacLellan met with reporters Friday for a midseason update.

“Since we’ve drafted him, he’s been a big priority,” MacLellan said of Vrana. “He’s an offensive skill guy. We’re just starting to touch what he can do in the NHL. We want to have him around for a long time.”

Vrana is in the midst of an excellent week, with three goals and an assist in the Capitals’ past two games. The 22-year-old is Washington’s second-leading scorer (15 goals) and is playing in the final year of his entry-level contract.

Last year, the Capitals reached an agreement on an extension for center Lars Eller in early February. For other pending free agents, like John Carlson, the negotiations took place after the season. It still could go either way for Vrana’s situation.

These were the other main takeaways from MacLellan’s conversation:

On Christian Djoos’ injury status:

“Off-ice workouts, he’s started. I think we’ll get a better sense over the next two weeks on the exact time frame. We’ll see. He’ll start maybe a light skate here this week and we’ll go from there. In two weeks time, I think we’ll have a real good indication of when he’s coming back.”

Djoos hasn’t played since Dec. 11 and had to have surgery on his left thigh. Madison Bowey and, more recently, Jonas Siegenthaler have spent time in the third defensive pairing in his absence. The 24-year-old blueliner had four assists in the 28 games he played before his surgery.

On Alex Ovechkin:

“I think he’s adapting his game to the way the league is and the way he is physically. He used to be a big rush player. He’d take on players 1-on-1 or 1-on-2. Now he’s adapted it to where he makes more plays and gets to the net. He’s tighter in the net, or he’s screening goalie or gets some tip goals or he’s getting empty-net goals. He’s evolving into what’s going on in the league and what’s going on with him physically.”

MacLellan also said Ovechkin and the team have not decided which game he will miss as a result of his decision to skip the All-Star Game. It has to be Washington’s final game before the break or the first one after, which means either Jan. 23 at the Toronto Maple Leafs or Feb. 1 against the Calgary Flames.

On Evgeny Kuznetsov’s recent struggles:

“I thought he started the year at a very high level and then basically tailed off after that injury. I think sometimes coming back from injuries guys have to find their way. They need a little time to get comfortable in the games. For him, it’s always he plays the game at such a high level how hard he wants to compete out there dictates … He could be one of the best players in the league if he chose to be.”

The end of that quote is reminiscent of something Kuznetsov said about himself early this year: “I don’t want to stay focused 365 [days]. That’s the problem. To be the best player in this league, you have to focus 365. It’s not easy. Some players will understand what I mean. But for me, it’s just hard.” He had a hot start to the year after his excellent performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but he hasn’t scored a goal since Dec. 2 and he’s only recorded four assists in the past nine games — despite returning to the top line with Ovechkin.

On the strategy at the trade deadline, Feb. 25:

“I don’t think we have any glaring weaknesses we’re going to try to address. Normally, we’re looking for defensive help and defensive depth — you know, your five, six, seven guys. I feel comfortable where we’re at there, barring injury. I think our forward group is pretty solid. We have a lot of options that the coaches can use there. I mean, I think the only thing we’re going to look for is, is there a hockey trade to be made, salary for salary, player for player in the forward group?”

MacLellan is clearly happy with his group, and with good reason. Coming off their Stanley Cup victory in June, the Capitals are one of the top teams in the league in terms of standing points percentage and lead the Metropolitan Division again. A “hockey trade” in the forward group could mean someone like the underperforming Andre Burakovsky or 14th forward Dmitrij Jaskin, who’s only been a Capital for three months, could be moved.

On Pheonix Copley and the depth at goaltender:

“I think he’s pretty much continually gotten better. You watch him work in practice, you watch what [goaltending coach Scott Murray] does, I mean I talk to Scott constantly on where’s he at, where’s he going and there’s a comfort level with him that he’s not going to get worse, he’s going to get better.”

MacLellan added that Copley’s emergence wasn’t really a surprise to him, but that it came earlier than expected. It helps them rest Braden Holtby, too. Last year, backup goalie Philipp Grubauer earned his 10th win of the year on March 12; Copley got his 10th win Tuesday.

MacLellan also said that minor league prospect Ilya Samsonov is “being challenged” with AHL affiliate Hershey and is optimistic even though Samsonov’s numbers “aren’t great.”

On whether the competition in the Eastern Conference has brought any surprises:

“Just that Tampa Bay has separated themselves from everyone else. I would have had them right with us with the whole group, but they continually seem to be at a different level than the rest of the league right now with their depth and with what they’re accomplishing offensively and defensively too. In a league that’s really close and there are probably 8-10 teams that are [up] there, Tampa has separated themselves from everybody, which is a surprise to me.”

The Tampa Bay Lightning are dominating the league with 70 standings points in 44 games, so that praise isn’t out of order. The Capitals beat the Lightning in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals last year, which probably led MacLellan to believe they were on the same level. This year, it hasn’t been tested; all three regular-season matchups between Washington and Tampa Bay take place in March, in the final weeks of the season.

• Adam Zielonka can be reached at azielonka@washingtontimes.com.

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