The Capitals coach sent Jakub Vrana a message. The talented young winger would have to sit and watch the game from the press box — designated as a healthy scratch. The move was a reminder not to take playing time for granted.
“It’s not a right to be in the lineup, it’s a privilege,” the coach said.
That coach was Barry Trotz — all the way back in January 2018. It wasn’t the first time that Vrana was forced into a lesser role, nor would it be the last. Todd Reirden and Peter Laviolette — Trotz’s successors — each took similar approaches as a way to try and get more consistency out of Vrana. Last season, Reirden benched Vrana mid-game after a careless turnover during a playoff loss to the New York Islanders. Laviolette, Washington’s current man at the helm, deactivated Vrana for two games just last week.
Vrana’s inclusion in the Capitals’ blockbuster trade Monday with the Detroit Red Wings came as a shock to most fans. But general manager Brian MacLellan said Vrana’s role — or more specifically, the 25-year-old’s frustration with that role — was a factor in shipping him to the Red Wings for winger Anthony Mantha.
Vrana’s talent — particularly his speed — was undeniable, but MacLellan indicated he noticed friction between Vrana and the coaching “staffs.”
“Jakub’s a little frustrated with where he’s at here within the organization, probably wants a little more ice time, wants more responsibility and there was a tugging war between coaching staff and staffs that have had him and the way he was playing,” MacLellan said. “So I think we had a frustrated player and so we tried to move on from that.”
The deal marked a disappointing end for Vrana’s tenure with the Capitals. Despite the inconsistencies, Vrana played an instrumental role for the team during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run in 2018. That postseason, Vrana had three goals and five assists in 23 games. Two of those goals came in Game 6 of the Capitals’ second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins — crucial scores that helped Washington take a 3-2 series lead. He also scored the opening goal on the night Washington won the Stanley Cup.
Vrana was well-liked within the Capitals, too. Linemate T.J. Oshie and a number of teammates took to social media to wish Vrana well. “I’ll miss you buddy,” Oshie wrote. And the two exchanged text messages after the trade, Oshie said.
“I hope he goes up there and kills it,” Oshie said, “and be the star player that we know he is.”
Oshie’s comment, perhaps unknowingly, touched on the risk that comes with trading a player like Vrana. Vrana’s speed and technique can make him a dangerous scoring threat, as evidenced by his 24- and 25-goal seasons in 2018-19 and 2019-20. And at 25 years old, Vrana’s game still has plenty of room to grow. He could be a key in helping the Red Wings’ rebuild — developing into a player that Washington might regret trading.
The Capitals famously made a mistake when they dealt Filip Forsberg, another young scorer, to Nashville in 2013, and some fans wondered on social media whether Washington was making a similar type of error again.
There are key differences between those deals, however. With Forsberg, the Swede was dealt before he even appeared in a regular-season game for the Capitals. He was flipped for Martin Erat, a veteran who proved to be largely unproductive in his season-and-a-half with Washington.
Vrana, by contrast, appeared in 284 regular-season games for the Capitals. And he was moved for Mantha, Detroit’s leading scorer who is only 26. The Capitals see Mantha’s size (6-foot-5) and skill (95 career goals in six seasons) as a potential difference-maker come the postseason.
Mantha, too, is under contract for the next three seasons at $5.7 million per year. Vrana hits restricted free agency this offseason, and was due a considerable pay bump.
Vrana ultimately fell out of favor with the Capitals. On Tuesday, Laviolette downplayed the idea there was a tug-of-war between Vrana and him. But he acknowledged that the staff was trying to have Vrana suit his game to a style needed “to be successful on a nightly basis and certainly in the playoffs, in the rounds when things become heavy.”
With the playoffs starting a month from now, the Capitals decided they could no longer hold out hope that Vrana would adapt.
“We know what we’re going to have to go through to win the first round and then the second round,” Laviolette said. “We know the way that Boston plays. We know the way that Pittsburgh plays. We know the way the Islanders play. So it was never about one person. It’s just about a style every player has to play on a successful team and you can be the top player in the league and in order to be successful you still have to play with a certain identity.
“So that’s what we’re trying to get through our team.”