PHILADELPHIA — There was little time for Jakub Vrana to celebrate reaching 20 goals for the season, because the 21st came so soon after.
The 23-year-old Czech scored the Washington Capitals’ first two goals Tuesday night before they let the Pittsburgh Penguins take the game, 5-3. When Vrana scored No. 20 for the first time in his young career, linemate T.J. Oshie collected the puck for the official for Vrana to keep, the Washington Post reported.
Why was Oshie the one to retrieve it? It seems Vrana didn’t place much stock in the milestone.
“I don’t really know what it means,” Vrana said Wednesday, after the Capitals held practice ahead of Thursday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers. “I go into season and try to score as much goals as I can. It definitely doesn’t mean anything for me to stop.”
A possible translation for that: You ain’t seen nothing yet. In just his second full NHL season, he’s on pace for 24 or 25 goals; if he catches fire, it could be more.
But Vrana is far from a one-trick pony this year. He’s one of Washington’s best skaters both with and without the puck. He has 22 assists to go with his 21 goals, also a career high in progress. He’s one of only three Capitals to play all 70 games thus far.
On top of all that, Oshie said that “despite his offensive numbers,” defense is where he’s seen Vrana’s biggest growth.
“Since last year, toward the end of the last half of the year, we saw his defensive play growing and through that I think creates more offense,” Oshie said. “He gets himself into better spots so when (opposing teams) do turn the puck over, he can use his speed and make a difference out there.”
For example, Vrana scored both his goals Tuesday from the right circle, an unusual spot for the left winger. Both times, he found a lane to get open during a Washington zone entry; the first happened just seconds after a Sidney Crosby puck giveaway that allowed the Capitals to transition.
But if team defense helps Vrana score, his improved individual defense in turn has helped the team. When the Capitals hosted the Winnipeg Jets last Sunday, Vrana, Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom were largely responsible for holding their high-scoring, Mark Scheifele-anchored line scoreless.
Vrana’s plus-minus rating is plus-21, second-best on the team and best among forwards. He finished plus-2 last year.
“This league is really good. You’re gonna know how to play defense,” Vrana said. “They give you system here, they give you plan. You’re gonna commit it and you’re gonna know how to play defense if you play (in the NHL).”
Coach Todd Reirden said he’s met with Vrana now and again to talk about different ways to grow his game — something Vrana will then build upon as one of the last players off the ice after practices.
“He works on whatever he needs to work on,” Oshie added. “He’s out there shooting pucks or doing something from the game before that maybe he didn’t capitalize on that he wants to get into his game, so the next time it happens, he scores. It’s been great to see him grow.”
“We’re just starting with this player, in my opinion,” Reirden said. “I feel like this has been the biggest jump that he’s made in his overall play, and I look forward to seeing that progress here as we get further along into the season and then into some playoff hockey and then future years with this guy as a Capital.”
Was the coach’s wording deliberate? Vrana is entering his restricted free agency summer and does not have a long-term deal yet in place. The way he’s made a permanent home for himself in the Capitals’ top six forwards, locking him in figures to be the front office’s greatest priority this summer.