Thursday, June 04, 2015

Washington Capitals: 2014-2015 By the Tens -- Forwards: Andre Burakovsky

“If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
-- Henry David Thoreau

Last July 12th, the Washington Capitals held their annual development camp “Fan Fest,” highlighted by an intrasquad scrimmage between teams of prospects.  Among the youngsters to whom attention was being paid was an Austrian-born, Swedish-trained, Canadian junior-developed forward taken with the 23rd overall pick in the 2013 draft.

For Andre Burakovsky it was both old and new.  It was his second D-camp experience with the Caps, but it was his first meaningful test at a new position: center.  Burakovsky might have been the prospect most likely to grab a roster spot with the big club in the fall, but learning a new position, with one season of hockey in North America, and with a new coaching regime in Washington, made it an uncertain proposition.  As new head coach Barry Trotz put it…
“The plan is I’m going to watch him.  I don’t know him. I’ve got to know him. I don’t have any plan for him. For me, I don’t have any plan for anybody. You play and you earn your ice time. If Burakovsky is ready to play and I can get him quality ice time, then he’ll play. If I don’t feel I can get him quality ice time, then he’ll probably go to Hershey, that type of thing. We just have to let it play out.”  
Fast forward to training camp.  After a week of playing center at development camp and extending his education at the position with the Malmö Redhawks when he returned home after camp,  Burakovsky was going to get a longer look in the middle playing against stiffer competition.

In what was a somewhat unexpected development, Burakovsky played his way onto the parent club roster and found himself in the starting lineup for the season opener against the Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center.  And then this happened…

Burakovsky scored his first NHL goal and the first goal for the Capitals in the 2014-2015 season.  It was a fairy tale beginning to his career (even if smudged by a 2-1 Gimmick loss to the Habs in which he failed in his trick shot attempt in the fifth and what would be final round).  He would get off to a fast start: 2-3-5 in his first four games, 3-9-12 in his first 15 games.

It would not be all unicorns and accordions, though.  After that quick start, Burakovsky went five games without a point.  Then, right after Thanksgiving, his ice time was cut back.  After averaging 14 minutes a game over his first 20 contests, he averaged barely nine minutes in his next five games.  Then he sat for three games. He returned to the lineup against the Tampa Bay Lightning on December 13th but skated less than nine minutes.

At that point, Burakovsky embarked on a series of assignments to and recalls from Hershey.  From December 19th until April 5th, he was sent down and recalled on five separate occasions.

On the whole, 53 games seemed like a bonus for Burakovsky overall.  It made divining trends out of his ten-game splits difficult, but he was one of only five Capitals rookies since the 2004-2005 lockout to record an average of 0.40 points per game or more (minimum: 50 games).  The others – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Evgeny Kuznetsov – have been or are expected to be important cogs in the Caps’ machine.  Burakovsky, who played in the fewest games in that group in his rookie season, can be thought of in the same way.

Fearless’ Take:  Road games did not faze him.  Burakovsky was 4-8-12, plus-6 in 28 home games; 5-5-10, plus-6 in 25 road games.  He was actually better on draws on the road (53.5 percent) than he was at home (37.5 percent).

Cheerless’ Take:  There are a couple of facts that look kinda “Brouwerish.”  Burakovsky skated more than 15 minutes in 16 games; the Caps were 7-7-2 in those games.  The Caps were 6-2-1 in games in which he had fewer than ten minutes of ice time.  He had points in 17 contests; the Caps were 8-6-3 in those contests.

Odd Burakovsky Fact:  That trick shot attempt that he took against Montreal on Opening Night was his only attempt of the season for the Caps.

Game to Remember: February 15th versus Anaheim.  The Caps arrived in Anaheim in mid-February having lost to the Los Angeles Kings the previous night.  They had not lost consecutive games in regulation in a month and were not looking to see that streak broken.  Barely three minutes into the second period the Caps took a 3-2 lead on a goal by Marcus Johansson.  Less than six minutes later Andre Burakovsky scored.  With Alex Ovechkin skating down the left wing side, Burakovsky filled in the middle.  With open ice ahead of him, he whacked his stick once on the ice to call for the puck, and Ovechkin, with a defender draped all over him, backhanded the puck to the rookie.  With a delayed penalty called, Burakovsky ripped a shot that beat goalie John Gibson.  After the Ducks climbed back within a goal late in the second period, Burakovsky provided the insurance.  On a play very similar to Burakovsky’s first goal, it was Ovechkin skating into the Anaheim zone with a defender on him.  When Burakovsky filled in this time, there was no Duck defender in sight.  Ovechkin led him perfectly, and Burakovsky did the rest, dekeing Gibson to the ice before sliding a backhander behind him, giving him the game-winning and insurance goals in his first two-goal game as a Capital.

Game to Forget: December 2nd versus Vancouver.  In his previous game, Burakovsky recorded the lowest ice time of any Capital – 10:39 – in a 6-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.  Compared to what he would get against Vancouver in the first game of December, it was a lifetime.  He got six shifts in the first period, three in the second, and two in the third, not taking the ice over the last 8:03 of the game.  He finished the night with just 5:37 in total ice time, his lowest total of the season.  His score sheet was almost blank – no shots on goal, no shot attempts, no hits, takeaways, no giveaways, no blocked shots.  The only marks on his line were a faceoff win and two losses.

Postseason: 2-1-3, plus-2, one game-winning goal

Except for a two-game spurt, Burakovsky’s post season was unremarkable.  His highlight was a two-goal game (his second as a Capital) in Game 4 of the Caps’ second round series against the New York Rangers. Neither was cheap.  The first one came with the Rangers holding a 1-0 lead late in the second period.  He stepped up to challenge a pass up the left wing wall to Chris Kreider, then picked the puck off the Ranger’s stick.  He then spun and cut to the middle, holding the puck a split second longer than he might have to get space between Marc Staal and Dan Girardi.  Finding that space he whipped a shot past goalie Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game.  Then, just 24 seconds into the third period, he scored what would be the game-winning goal, taking a chip up the wall from Alex Ovechkin, skating in, fending off Ryan McDonagh’s attempt to cut him off, and snapping a backhander past Lundqvist.  In an otherwise dreary post season, it provide a glimpse of what might be down the road.

In the end…

On balance, it might be said that Andre Burakovsky is ahead of schedule.  He played in just 64 regular season and playoff games, but then again, he only turned 20 on February 9th.  It would not have been unreasonable to think he would have played in Hershey all season.  Even with only 53 regular season games played, Burakovsky finished in the top-30 (among 197 rookies) in goals (30th with 7), assists (20th with 13), points (20th with 22), plus-minus (7th with plus-12), and game-winning goals (14th with 2).  This was accomplished despite deployment strategies (often on the fourth line) and with his frequent shuttling between Washington and Hershey starting about a third into the season.  Taken as a whole, there was much unexpected in Andre Burakovsky’s game this season, an excellent start to what could be a fine career.

Grade: A-

Photo: Elsa/Getty Images North America