- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Anyone who frequents the Washington Capitals’ free-to-attend practices in Arlington, Virginia, knows that Jakub Vrana is most often the last player to leave the ice. He works solo on his shot, specialty plays or whatever skill is on his mind that day.

Even after posting two goals and an assist in the Capitals’ 5-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday — Vrana’s first three-point performance in a regular season game — the 22-year-old littered his postgame talk with reporters with variations of the same phrase: “I can always get better.”

The Capitals’ youngest forward in a lineup with multiple blossoming stars won’t tap the brakes on his work ethic now.

“I feel like always the young guys should stay on the ice a little longer,” Vrana said. “Unless they injured or something, they should stay longer on the ice and work on their game. … I’ve been doing that pretty much all my life. When I feel it, I’m just gonna stay out there and work on my game.”

It’s easy to forget Vrana was a rookie just last season. His two goals Tuesday tied, then eclipsed his 2017-18 total of 13, and he has half the season to go to set a new career high. The Czech Republic native is second on the team in goals (14) and tied for fifth in points (24).

On his assist and his first goal, in particular, Vrana showed off his breakaway speed to make the plays. He picked up a puck from a defensive zone faceoff and beat a few Flyers to the goal line, where a quick centering pass to the crease gave Tom Wilson an easy goal.

Then, in the second period, he stole the puck from Philadelphia’s No. 1 center, Sean Couturier, and sped away all alone to score.

“You cannot always go so fast. You have to read the situation,” Vrana said. “Obviously I try to use it as much as I can and when I see the chance to skate I do it. I think I’m a good skater and I just try to use it as much as I can.”

Coach Todd Reirden certainly believes Vrana is a good skater, too. He said he likes to come up with “comparables” for some of his players, and while he wouldn’t divulge which past or present NHL players Vrana reminded him of, it came down to the element of speed.

“We’ve talked a lot about how those players use speed to affect the game. Everyone can have an effect [in] a different way, and Vrana’s is definitely with his speed and his instincts to pick passes off,” Reirden said.

The offseason is still a ways off, but given the flashes Vrana has shown last postseason and this year, his contract situation is worth pointing out. The winger’s entry-level deal expires after this season, when he’ll become a restricted free agent. If there’s any candidate on this team for an in-season extension, a la Lars Eller this time last year, it would be Vrana.

Goalie Pheonix Copley, who picked up his 10th win of the year Tuesday, played with Vrana for a while with the AHL Hershey Bears not long ago. He hasn’t been surprised by Vrana’s NHL success.

“He’s very highly skilled and very fast, as everyone can see,” Copley said. “It’s great. He spends a lot of time working on his game. So anytime you see a guy who works that hard, it means that much, it’s that much more special to watch.”

And lucky for Washington, it’s not likely Vrana will slow down soon — either in his game speed or in his post-practice efforts.

“It can always be better,” Vrana said with a bit of a laugh. “I’ve been saying that all the time. You can think too much about numbers and you can get into your head too much. So just try to go day by day, enjoying the NHL here with these guys and just working hard and try to bring it every game.”

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

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