Czech-In Time: Caps Take Czech Winger, Goaltender With First Selections In NHL DraftPosted on June 28, 2014 by Keith Leonard
As the Capitals underwent a major overhaul of their front office, all eyes trained on the first day of the NHL Draft to see what the "refresh" would look like. The first results are in, and they are a bit confusing.
With the 13th selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, the Washington Capitals selected Jakub Vrana from Linkoping of the Swedish Hockey League. The Czech Republic native, listed at 6'0", 170 pounds, Vrana is billed as a dynamic, skilled winger with an NHL calibre shot. His performance at international tournaments this year, particularly the recent Under-18 tournament where he had 9 goals, was exceptional. Vrana looks like he has all the tools to be a top-six forward at the NHL level, though he will need time to fill out his frame and refine his all-around game. Fortunately for the Caps, the organization has a bit of a log jam on the flanks of their top scoring lines, so there is time for Vrana to gain some seasoning before he makes the jump to the NHL.
On Day 2, the Caps packaged picks 44 and 74 to trade with Buffalo for pick 39, selecting Vrana's countryman Vitek Vanecek from Liberec of the Czech Republic Jr. League. Listed at 6'0", 180 pounds, Vanecek is a bit of an off-board selection for the Caps, as he was thought to be a mid-round pick in most rankings and projections. Vanecek is described as an athletic goaltender with great movement in the crease who displays all the tools to be an effective starter down the road, although he is quite raw as a prospect and will need a great deal of seasoning to reach the NHL level. Given the Caps track record of developing goaltenders, a record likely to continue with goalie guru coaches like Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn at the helm, Vanecek could be a solid starter down the line.
The issue at hand is not that Vrana and Vanecek are bad players or that they shouldn't have been selected, but these asset management decisions are sure to raise some eyebrows within the Caps community. For an organization seemingly desperate to upgrade at the center and defense positions, a blueprint for building championship teams that has been well established in recent seasons, the team does not appear to in any hurry to develop that talent themselves. Instead, with their first two picks, they have selected an offensively talented winger and a project goalie, trading up in the draft to attain the latter. The Caps entered the 2014 NHL Draft with 9 picks, and have used their first three selections to address areas the organization is already strong in. With Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Kuznetsov already at the NHL level and last year's first round pick, Andre Burakowsky, not far from the NHL ranks, Vrana is not likely to see significant ice time in the NHL for a while. Similarly, with the team squarely behind Braden Holtby, and with promising German net-minder Phillip Grubauer waiting in the wings, Vanecek will have to leapfrog two goaltenders to gain the starting job. The Vanecek selection begins to look more puzzling when factoring in the third round pick the Caps traded to move up a mere five spots to select him with.
Again, it's worth noting for all the criticism leveled at the Capitals over the years, their scouting staff has remained an area of pride for the organization. Consistently finishing in the latter-third of each round of the Draft for the last several seasons, few teams can boast the kind of success the Caps have in overcoming poor draft position to find quality prospects. However, the Vrana and Vanecek picks are anathema to that trend. While it's fair to defer to the experts, the consensus was that both players were selected somewhat early and the best choice from an asset management perspective would have been to trade down and collect more draft choices if these players truly are the cream of the crop in the eyes of the Caps scouting staff. Capitals General Manager Brain MacLellan stated that the team had difficulty moving up to select defenseman Haydn Fleury, who went seventh overall to the Carolina Hurricanes, but it is unclear why they weren't able to at least move down a few spots.
While it may be unfair to judge these players on Draft day (and for what it's worth, the two had fantastic performances for the Czech Republic in the recent U-18 Tournament), the selections ring peculiar when contrasted with the echoes of "refresh" and a new direction still resonating from Ted Leonsis and the new management group. For many Caps fans, the selections of Vrana and Vanecek will be little more than a reminder of "the more things change, the more they stay the same". With six more picks to go in the 2014 Draft, the new regime is not yet done making its first mark on the organization's future, but so far, there doesn't appear to be a major sea change in the Caps draft tendencies, nor is there any indication that this Draft will be a significant agent of change for the organization's future.