Adler, a small, rather nameless coastal resort just south of Sochi that is receiving worldwide attention as one of the hosting places of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, recently was packed with hockey scouts, journalists and the top players born in 1995 or later for the IIHF Under-18 World Championship.
The Czech Republic was one of the participating countries until suffering a 6-0 defeat at the hands of eventual gold-medal winners, Canada. The Czechs started the event with a crushing victory over Latvia, but only advanced from the preliminary round to seventh place at the tournament's end.
One of the stars of the Czech squad included underage, 17-year-old forward Jakub Vrána, who is eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft. The native of Prague left his hometown two years ago to play for the Letci Letňany (Letňany Flyers) that, unlike most European clubs, only has elite-league teams in youth categories, for instance the Czech Under-18 Extraliga. Vrána made his debut among 18-year-old's as a 14-year-old and, shortly after celebrating his 15th birthday back in February 2011, he decided to go north to play in Sweden.
You won't find too many Czech players in junior leagues outside of their homeland and the Canadian Hockey League. Vrána can be considered a pioneer as many of his fellow countrymen followed him to Sweden a year after Vrána made his move, and still more will continue to do so in the future. His Under-18 national team teammate, David Pastrňák, is one of the players who competes in Northern Europe now, as well, and with Vrána, they are the only two players from the Czech national squad who play neither in the Czech Republic nor in Canada. It's sure that Sweden has loads of their own talented players to take care of, but that doesn't mean the two Czechs have in any way been neglected.
Actually, the team Vrána plays for, Linköping HC, is showing great interest in building him up. The organization, most known as the youth team of Magnus Johansson and Jonas Junland, two former NHL defensemen, gave him an early chance among juniors in the highly-respected SuperElit league, arguably the second-best junior league in the world behind the CHL. At the age of 15, he made three appearances with Linköping's Under-20 team and, later in the season, even scored his first goal at that level.
The 2011-12 season might've been the turning point of Vrána's career as, in addition to the three SuperElit games, he also appeared at the 2012 Under-18 WJC that was held in the Czech Republic. Being the youngest player competing at this event, Vrána drew a lot of attention and subsequently impressed the scouts by helping his team avoid relegation, sharing the title of the Czech's leading point-scorer with Dominik Simon with four goals and four assists in six games.
Later in 2012, Linköping demonstrated its intention of giving Vrána a real chance by dressing him for a game at the European Trophy, currently the most successful pre-season international tournament that exists in Europe. Vrána scored his first goal for LHC's first team in that game and, in October 2012, he also made his Elitserien debut as the youngest foreign player in the history of the league and the ninth-youngest overall. As a linemate of Mattias Weinhandl, a former member of the New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild, and Joonas Almtorp, who was drafted by the Oilers in 2002 but never made it past the AHL, Vrána failed to rack up any points, but his game count eventually rose to five games in his rookie campaign.
Vrána's rapid advancement was not overlooked as the then 16-year-old forward received a call to represent his country at the 2013 Under-20 WJC in Ufa, Russia. Once again watched by the scouts, Vrána played good hockey, but collected just one assist in six games. That's no surprise as coach Miroslav Přerost preferred to play better and more experienced players like Tomáš Hertl, Dmitrij Jaškin and Radek Faksa on the top offensive lines.
Vrána did not receive as much ice time as was expected at the 2013 Under-18 WJC. One of the reasons might be his perfomance as he only managed to score two goals and added no assists in five games. In pre-tournament contests against Slovakia, he looked like a scoring machine as Vrána beat defensemen seemingly with ease in those games. According to Chapin Landvogt, a Hockey's Future writer who was present in Sochi, Vrána played good hockey but was mostly unlucky over the course of the tournament. Also, some of his passes to set up scoring chances failed to find a recipient who would be able to put the puck in the net. As per the official website of the Czech Ice Hockey Association, Vrána played four games on a line with Pavel Kohout and Roman Přikryl, who are not exactly known as top Czech prospects. In the quarterfinals, coach Luděk Bukač moved him to the top line, but the Czechs were shut out as his line with David Kämpf and another top Czech 2014 draft prospect, Ondřej Kaše, didn't generate any points.
Nevertheless, Vrána still has one year to impress NHL scouts and he will be back at both the Under-20 and Under-18 WJCs in 2014 if he isn't injured or considerably worse at what he's doing. At six feet and 187 pounds, you wouldn't expect him to be much of a physical hockey player, but he indeed is active along the boards and in the corners, making his way around defensemen by properly using fast skating, muscle and brains.
Hockey's Future talked with Vrána after a pre-U18 game in the Czech Republic against Slovakia.
Hockey's Future: Jakub, you played at your first Under-20 WJC earlier this year. What is the experience like?
Jakub Vrána: It was a great and also a valuable experience. I'm sure it helped me a lot.
HF: Your role on the Under-18 national team is being a team leader. How do you cope with such responsibility?
JV: Actually, I don't think that our team here is about any individual leaders, but about the team work. Everybody here tries to make this team a tight group and it's not important who is better individually and who has more experience with the Under-18 WJC.
HF: So, what is it that you give the team, what kind of play can fans expect from you?
JV: I'm actually more of a physical forward and I try to use a lot of speed. My job on the ice is to score goals.
HF: That all will help you going into the 2014 NHL Draft which you are eligible for. What do you think you need to improve the most before you get drafted?
JV: I think that I need to become more solid defensively, which is the most important thing I'm going to try to improve.
HF: You play in Sweden, where they'll definitely show you the best ways to improve your defense. How tough was it for you to go to a foreign country as a 15-year-old hockey player?
JV: It was a fantastic experience for me. The players in Linköping accepted me as one of their own very quickly. The coaches were very helpful and the whole hockey environment helped me in learning new stuff. Also, the Swedish junior league is a very good league, it's definitely one of the best competitions in Europe. That all means I'm really satisfied with playing in Sweden.