“Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”
When last we met Andre Burakovsky, he was having a devil (or a Flyer, or a Penguin) of a time trying to get his offensive game untracked in the postseason. In 12 postseason games last spring, he had one point (a goal in a 4-3 Game 1 win over Pittsburgh in the second round). Almost as much as the lack of points was the lack of offensive aggression. He had 16 shots on goal in 12 games, which seems a bit light for a scoring winger. He did not record his first shot on goal of the playoffs until Game 4 of the opening round against Philadelphia.
It was a disappointing end to what was a rather pleasant sophomore year for Burakovsky. He appeared in 79 games and almost doubled his goal (17 to 9), assist (21 to 13), and points production (38 to 22) over his rookie season. He almost doubled his shots on goal (126 to 65 as a rookie) and lifted his shots on goal per game by almost 30 percent (from 1.23 to 1.59). He even received as many Lady Byng Trophy votes as teammate Nicklas Backstrom (okay, each got one fifth-place vote).
He even endured a two-game benching without undue harm to his confidence, although it did take him a little while longer to get going as far as points production was concerned. In his last 47 games of the regular season he went 15-15-30, a healthy 50-plus points rate over a full season.
On the other hand, Burakovsky was not an especially impressive possession player. He finished smack in the middle – seventh – of 13 forwards with at least 250 minutes of ice time in Corsi-for (51.5 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey). It was a substantial drop from his rookie season (54.6). It might have contributed to a drop in goals-for/goals-against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 from 61.1 percent in 2014-2015 to 53.1 percent last season.
Burakovsky is one of seven players in Caps history to record at least 25 career goals and at least 30 career assists by the age of 20. The rest of the list isn’t bad. It is that last part – by the age of 20 – that might get lost in the noise. Burakovsky is just the seventh Capital in team history to play in at least 100 NHL games by the age of 20 and just the second since 1987 (Tom Wilson is the other). It is also good to keep in mind that this is just his fourth year playing hockey in North America, a year of Canadian juniors (Erie Otters) being his first. Burakovsky is not as much a work in progress as he is a canvass that has just been put on the easel to be painted.
Looking back on last season, maybe that playoff performance shouldn’t have been a surprise. It’s not like he went into the playoffs guns a’blazin’. He had a goal and an assist over his last 11 regular season games. He did the same thing in 2015; he was 0-1-1 in his last 11 regular season games. Then, he went without a point in his first six postseason games. And here is something odd about his shots. Yeah, he had 126 shots in 79 games last season, but 10 of them came in one game (a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers on February 2nd in which he recorded one of the two goals). That leaves 116 shots in 78 other games (in 20 of them, he did not have a shot on goal). Still an improvement over the previous year, but it doesn’t sound quite as impressive.
The Big Question… Is this the season Andre Burakovsky puts it together over a full year?
We do not pose that question thinking he cannot do it; we pose it wondering if, still short of his 22nd birthday, he has the experience and physical maturity to do it. This is a big season for the Caps, arguably their last best chance to win a Stanley Cup in the short term. If this is the year that Burakovsky can put together a solid 82-game campaign and not wilt down the stretch and the postseason, it could be the best boost the club could get in finally reaching that goal. If there is something to provide some incentive in addition to the thrill of victory, it is that Burakovsky is entering the last year of his entry-level contract (AAV or $894,166 according to generalfanager.com). But here is something to think about. If Burakovsky was to sustain the production he has had early in seasons over the full 82-game slate, a 25-35-60 season would not be out of the question. That would give him 51 career goals and 69 career assists. Let’s round that assist number up to 70. Since the 2004-2005 lockout, only 14 players 21 or younger had three seasons in the NHL and at least 50 goals and 70 assists. It is a list that includes the likes of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Nathan MacKinnon, and Taylor Hall. It would be a big leap for Burakovsky, but not bigger than the one he made from his rookie to his sophomore year.
In the end…
Andre Burakovsky is still, at this writing, about 150 days short of his 22nd birthday. Like any youngster with potential, he has had flashes of showing just what that potential is, and stretches in which he disappears. In his first two seasons, those disappearing stretches have come late in seasons, including the playoffs. That is a habit that cannot be tolerated for long if he and the Caps are going to make a deep postseason run. It might be asking a lot for him to grow up a little faster, but the fact is that this season might present the best opportunity the Caps will have to win a championship in the short-term. It is not all on Burakovsky’s shoulders, by any means, but he has the skill to be an impact player for this club, and there is no better time to establish the habit of being one than now.
Projection: 78 games, 20-26-46, plus-8
Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America