A return to Sweden looks like the likely option for Vrana (Photo: Andreas Froberg/SHL.se)
Capitals 2014 first-round pick Jakub Vrana is a talented player. The Czech forward put his skills on display at development camp this summer, where he lit up the opposition playing mostly next to another top prospect, Andre Burakovsky, and a free agent invitee, Slovene Olympian Jan Urbas.
According to an interview with Linkoping-based newspaper Corren (as translated by RMNB reader Matilda Wrigsjö), Vrana, who plays for local Linkopings HC and signed an entry-level contract with the Caps after camp, will come back to North America to try to impress Caps’ brass again this fall.
“Of course I want to play in the NHL,” Vrana said in the interview. “It is up to the club to decide when they want me. If it isn’t now, I will develop further and hopefully head over the next year.”
The article mentions two options for Vrana, who is expected to kick his season off Friday in a Champions League game against Pardubice on a line with two former players from the Caps, Mattias Sjogren and Jacob Micflikier. Option one would be playing in the NHL, which looks like a long shot considering competition the Caps have on wing position. Option two is an assignment to Linkoping.
During development camp, Caps’ assistant general manager Ross Mahoney told Mike Vogel of Monumental Network that they expect Vrana to re-join Linkoping this year. They expressed doubt that 18-year-old will even participate in training camp.
“I have to do a little more research into that and see,” said Mahoney. “In the past we’ve had both. Some of the younger players had come over, but it’s also hard in a sense that these elite teams will be going already and you don’t want to take away from their chances to play on an elite team or move them down in the line-up because they missed 10 days of their camp over there.”
Vrana wasn’t sure either. Talking to RMNB’s Ian Oland, the Czech wunderkind said that he didn’t know at the time what his plans for the preseason were. Right now, Vrana is confident he’ll cross the pond in September to have his fate for this season determined by Caps coaches and management.
However, there’s another option for Vrana this year. As he was not drafted out of the Canadian Hockey League, the Caps are free to put Vrana in the AHL like they’re expected to do with Andre Burakovsky. It’s not a conventional path for teenagers to play in the AHL for a whole season (as opposed to late-season assignments after their junior or European clubs have been eliminated). Last year, only four teenage players (including the Caps’ Nathan Walker) played more than 15 games in the AHL. Another Washington prospect, Connor Carrick, played pro hockey all season long, but he was limited to just 13 games in the AHL regular season due to injuries, NHL stints, and representing USA at the World Juniors.
That path, however, has benefits for NHL clubs.
- The player learns the system his parent club plays. That would make transition to the NHL a little easier. It’s especially important with European players, who have to adapt to North American rinks and playing style. “It’s an easy transition for the players,” Hershey Bears head coach Troy Mann said to the Washington Post’s Alex Prewitt about the systems two clubs are going to run. “You think of when guys get called up to the NHL, they’ve got a lot going through their mind getting up to the NHL, their equipment and the game routine. The last thing they need to worry about is system play.”
- The team scouts the player more. Both coaches and player-development staff visit Hershey or watch their games often. That way they can know everything about him. Not only does the NHL club become less of a mystery for a player, but team’s brass gets to learn all about the player over the longer period of time. It’s common for AHL and NHL coaches to communicate closely. In order to establish that (and correct bad communication under his predecessor), Barry Trotz has set a “48-hour rule” that requires him and Mann to talk at least once every other day. The coaching staff in the big league receives all information collected on players and can build educated opinions on prospects.
- The team can affect roster decisions. Even though the AHL is a powerful, storied structure with its own rabid following, it remains a development league. The parent club can affect roster decisions to some extent to get a better look on prospects in different situations, with different linemates and different opposition. The primary goal of European teams is to win hockey games, even if that means playing younger players less or even bench them. AHL clubs typically don’t do that, allowing more than enough space for prospects to showcase themselves. That definitely helps prospects develop and gain confidence.
For the reasons stated above, my opinion is that the NHL club and the player definitely benefit when a top prospect plays in the AHL at an early age. The AHL and SHL playing levels are about equal, meaning Vrana’s competition and teammates would not be worse than the ones he would’ve had in Sweden. He should spend the season in Hershey.