“Suspense is worse than disappointment.”
-- Robert Burns
Ten months ago, we closed our look back at Andre Burakovsky’s season with this question: “does he take the next step to being a productive top-six quality forward, or will he continue to exhibit the injury tendencies and inconsistencies of the last three seasons?” After a third straight season posting 12 goals and a second straight season of 25 points, we have our answer, and it is not one that Caps fans would have preferred.
Despite the fact that Burakovsky is still just 24 years old and will not turn 25 until next February, he finished the 2018-2019 season with 328 regular season and another 56 postseason games on his resume. One would think – or at least hope – that a player with this much experience on his resume was displaying the game one would expect to see in his prime. If that is true for Burakovsky, it is something of a disappointment, if this is his prime performance level. But here is the frightening part of coming to that conclusion at this point in his career. Let’s consider three players over their first five seasons up to their 24 year old season:
Burakovsky: 23rd overall draft pick (2013), 62 goals, 83 assists, 145 points, 4183 minutes ice time
Player B: 7th overall draft pick (2011), 58 goals, 87 assists, 145 points, 3995 minutes ice time
Player C: 6th overall draft pick (2006), 51 goals, 100 assists, 151 points, 4250 minutes ice time
Player B is Mark Scheifele, who blossomed into a 29-goal scorer in that fifth season of his career and thereafter has been a point per game player for the Winnipeg Jets. Player C is Derick Brassard, who does have a 60-point season and two 20-goal seasons, but who is now on his sixth NHL team in 12 seasons and fourth in his last two seasons. One is a bona fide NHL star, while the other has always seemed to be more potential than performance despite decent mid-career numbers.
Burakovsky meandered his way to an unimpressive set of numbers over his first five ten-game segments, going 6-6-12, minus-5, covering a total of 44 games out of the 50 on the schedule to that point that brought the Caps to the All-Star Game break. After that, and here is where Burakovsky’s propensity to tease emerged once more, he was 6-7-13, plus-7, in his last 32 games over the last three segments, despite averaging almost a minute less per game over this stretch (10:43) than the previous one (11:25). He did, however, close the regular season and open the postseason once more with a lot of zeroes on his score sheet. After posting goals in three straight games in early March, he went his last 14 games of the regular season and first five games of the postseason with one goal and one assist with an “even” plus-minus rating.
Fearless’ Take… For all his disappointments in light of his potential, Andre Burakovsky is rather accomplished for this franchise at this point in his career. Among 78 players who played in at least 100 games by their 24-year old season for the Caps, he is ninth in games played (328), tied for 15th in career goals (62, with Michal Pivonka), 12th in even strength goals (55), 23th in assists (83), 20th in points (145), and sixth in game-winning goals (13). Even in 2018-2019 he was important for results, even if you wish he did it more often. The Caps were 9-2-1 in the 12 games in which he had a goal, 15-3-4 in the 22 games in which he had a point.
Cheerless’ Take… There was an odd lack of engagement by Burakovsky in a physical sense this season. He is not generally known as a physical player, but only eight times this season did he record a hit and a blocked shot in the same game. Not that it mattered a lot, since the Caps were just 4-3-1 in those games. And there was the odd lack of team results even when he was engaged. In 41 games this season, Burakovsky was one ice for at least ten shot attempts at 5-on-5. Only 22 times in those games did the Caps win. He just was not consistently able to translate action into results.
Odd Burakovsky Fact… Of 20 players with at least 50 goals scored for the Caps since 2005-2006, Burakovsky has the second-best percentage of game-winning goals to total goals (21.0 percent), trailing only Jay Beagle (23.5 percent).
Game to Remember… December 6th at Arizona
The Caps were in the midst of a three-game road trip in early December, having lost the first game of that trip and with losses in consecutive games for the first time in a month when they took the ice in Arizona. The Caps found themselves chasing the game, allowing the game’s first goal and allowing another barely a minute after they tied the game early in the second period. Matt Niskanen got the Caps even late in the second period, and the teams fought to a draw with no goals scored in the first 15 minutes of the third period. In the 16th minute, Niskanen fired a long cross-ice diagonal pass from his own end to Burakovsky crossing the red line. Skating into the Coyotes’ end, Burakovsky got to the top of the left wing circle and unleashed a shot under the stick of defenseman Kevin Connauton and past the blocker of goalie Adin Hill on the short side to make it a 3-2 game, 15:18 into the period. Alex Ovechkin potted an empty netter late, but for Burakovsky, subbing for an injured Tom Wilson on the top line, his was the game-winning goal, welcome in ending a two-game losing streak and lighting the match to what would be a five-game winning streak.
Game to Forget… February 3rd vs. Boston
A lot of Capitals might like to forget this game in early February. The Caps went into it with a 14-game winning streak against the Bruins. There would not be a 15th. Tuukka Rask, whose career numbers against the Caps going into this game would frighten Stephen King, pitched a 1-0 shutout to become the all-time leader in wins by a goalie in Bruin history. For his part, Burakovsky did not record a shot attempt while skating on the fourth line, hitting the ice for only ten shifts and 7:18 of ice time, none of which came in the last 13 minutes of the game with the Caps trying to chase down the tying goal.
Postseason… If the Caps had anything at all from Burakovsky early in the series against Carolina, the series might not have gone seven games. As it was, though, he did not record a point in Games 1-5, was minus-4, and had only one shot on goal over those games. Only once in those five games did he skate more than 10 minutes, logging 14:08 in a 2-1 loss in Game 4. He did bounce back somewhat in Games 6 and 7 with an assist in the former and a goal in the latter, but it was not nearly enough. Going back to last spring’s Stanley Cup final, he is 1-2-3, minus-3, in his last ten postseason games with only nine shots on goal, three of those coming in the double-overtime loss to Carolina in Game 7 in the first round that ended the Caps’ season.
After completing his entry level contract at three years and $2.775 million, followed by his extension for two years at $3.0 million per year on a bridge contract, Andre Burakovsky finds himself an arbitration-eligible free agent. To retain negotiating rights, the Caps would have to qualify him at $3.25 million. That is a lot to pay a player who averaged barely 11 minutes per game this season, was at times a fourth liner and others a healthy scratch, and who was largely silent in the latter part of the regular season and playoffs. Given that the Caps have the renewals of Carl Hagelin, Brett Connolly, Christian Djoos, and Jakub Vrana, among others, on their plate, Burakovsky might be at a crossroads of his career.
In the end…
Burakovsky does not have the enigmatic quality of Alexander Semin, a highly skilled player whose frustrating tenure as a Capital preceded Burakovsky’s by a decade. Nevertheless, Burakovsky’s career in Washington has been a head-scratcher. He has displayed a variety of talents – speed, skating ability in tight places, good hands, a wicked shot – but it has not been displayed either frequently or consistently enough. More often, he has simply disappeared too often from games altogether. A player of his skill should not have had 21 games this season without a shot on goal, although getting fourth line minutes for much of the year will do that. It seems as likely as not that Burakovsky will be playing in another city next season. Retaining him is among the hardest decisions the Caps will make this off-season. It is hard for a team to let a 24-year old with his skill set go, and how the Caps deal with that decision will be an important story line this off-season.