As the St. Louis Blues prepare for a season currently defined by uncertainty, one of their recent acquisitions in Jakub Vrana is similarly draped with some significant element of such. After several strong years in Washington and an excellent stint in Detroit, Jakub Vrana’s career was halted by his enrollment into the NHL’s Player Assistance program last season, with his return several months later brief before a trade to St. Louis. In the 20 games Vrana saw with the Blues, he seemingly resumed his highly productive mode of play, scoring 10 goals in this span and 14 points in total. Now, Vrana is set to play in his first full NHL season since the 2019-20 season, seeking fulfillment of the promise displayed in his early career.
Understanding the Play of Jakub Vrana
Vrana has primarily served as a consistently productive and high-end middle-six winger, with the attractive ability to press into the zone with the puck efficiently. In these presses, Vrana develops gap advantages through his high-level acceleration. Strong hip and lower-body mobility supports the in-stride shooting of Vrana, providing him with the consistent ability to generate great velocity on his shot. High speed and intense awareness of the puck relative to his body enable his ability to leverage these gap advantages into high-danger chances, which in combination contribute to his efficient finishing rates; for reference, Vrana has shot at or above 10 percent in all but one full season in his career thus far, with his highest coming in 2020-21 at 13.57 percent (per Evolving-Hockey).
These traits are particularly compatible with Vrana as an off-wing player, who often enters the zone on his off-hand and creates an additional rush dynamic for teams, allowing them a greater range of play-creation opportunities. Vrana utilizes these derived gap advantages in a manner that both creates and finishes opportunities at near-elite levels.
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In-zone, Vrana is not particularly involved in maintaining puck possession, instead seeking weak-side opportunities (especially for one-timers), which may be somewhat restrictive in regard to Vrana’s productive opportunities. Aside from in-zone shots, most of Vrana’s puck touches are amassed on the rush, with the amount of situations Vrana faces attacking the play in-zone somewhat limited, although Vrana is not necessarily deficient in this regard. Considering this, Vrana has also seen some not-insignificant success on the power play, with the half-wall on his off-hand his most ideal placement in a 1-3-1 dynamic, which is prevalent among the most productive and efficient of power-play systems in the league.
In terms of defensive play, Vrana has displayed notable inconsistency or even incompetency, which is perhaps a natural defect of his play and heavy rush-lead style. Center-lane stability has neutralized this defect in previous seasons; Nicklas Backstrom, before his surgery, has succeeded the most in this effect across the linemates Vrana has played significant minutes with and in the 2018-19 season, the only season in which the Capitals were above average defensive team with Vrana on the ice (per Hockey-Viz), Vrana and Backstrom together in 349.43 minutes of time on ice conceded 2.13 expected goals against per 60, which is considerably below Vrana’s individual career average of 2.61 expected goals against per 60 (per Evolving-Hockey).
Predicting Deployment and Theorizing Linemate Dynamics
Daily Faceoff currently projects Vrana to slot alongside free agency acquisition Kevin Hayes and youngster Jake Neighbours on St. Louis’ third line. However, this is definitely subject to change, as a notable, and perhaps likely, probability of Vrana slotting in the top six for the Blues next season is likely, given the recent notoriety built around Kasperi Kapanen on top of transgressions and concerns lingering from his inconsistent play. Brandon Saad, Brayden Schenn, and Vrana together last season were outpaced offensively significantly but finished at absurd rates in their 51.1 minutes spent together on-ice in nine games last season, a pattern observed across the entirety of the Blues roster last season. Larger sample sizes may yield similar but more typical results, given the playstyle of the three middle-six talents.
While goal-scoring opportunities are likely higher in that second-line role, substantial chance lies in a combination of Jake Neighbours, Kevin Hayes, and Vrana. Specifically, the center-lane activity of Hayes with the puck and Neighbours without the puck may amplify the rush shooting of Vrana as he approaches the net, with two or even all three players with heavy momentum toward the opposition goal. Again, the Blues will be faced with an intriguing ability to score at a high efficiency despite their poor pace-of-place metrics.
Vrana’s Productive Outlook in 2023-24
Considering the above factors, Vrana’s productive outreach may be at one of its highest potentials in his career. While his lack of play in the past two seasons is a valid concern for his ability to produce at a high level again, all sample sizes in this time have indicated an ability to return to such form. At the age of 27, his peak performance is not entirely behind him and may even realized in a St. Louis Blues uniform, given he avoids injuries this upcoming season. Vrana has a particular opportunity to become one of St. Louis’ most fundamentally important offensive players, pushing the team closer to fighting for a return to the postseason after last year’s somewhat narrow but certified miss.
In terms of a specific range, 25-30 goals and 50-65 points are the most reasonable ranges to predict for Vrana’s production next season in a full 82-game sample. Vrana’s career highs are at 25 goals and 52 points currently, both achieved in 69 games in 2019-20. On an 82-game pace, these would translate to nearly 30 goals and 62 points, respectively.
For Vrana, a fresh start at a new club, aside from the troubles in Detroit but retaining the ability possessed through his career so far, is the best culmination to revitalizing his career.