As the morning session of Capitals development camp was winding down, Andre Burakovsky left the circle of kneeling players first and skated toward a cluster of pucks. His stick swooped down and plucked one from the middle, nudging it gently forward before winding up and whipping a shot into the netting, like an uppercut.
Satisfied, Burakovsky stepped off the ice and toward the locker room. A fan called his name, asking for an autograph. Soon, the largest crowd of the day had gathered for Burakovsky, one of the best prospects in Washington’s system, and Jakub Vrana, a first-round pick this June. The shy Vrana smiled his way through his first day of camp, but for Burakovsky this feeling was familiar -– swarmed for signatures, shouts of “Andre,” a beacon for attention.
Last summer, then-general manager George McPhee was adamant that Burakovsky, plucked 23rd overall in 2013, was a long-term project, unlikely to reach the NHL for another two seasons. But that was before Burakovsky decided to leave Sweden and migrate to the Ontario Hockey League, where with the Erie Otters he thrived.
“I was kind of nervous in the beginning, to move over to America and Canada,” Burakovsky said Monday. “It’s a really big step. Of course I miss it sometimes. But it’s a huge step.”
Occasionally skating alongside Connor McDavid, the presumed No. 1 overall pick in 2015, Burakovsky thrived on Erie’s first and second lines, scoring 87 points in 57 games, and 13 points in 14 playoff games. Soon, the expectations soared. Would Burakovsky be ready quicker than expected? Would the NHL come calling in 2014-15?
“I’m going to do whatever it takes to have a chance to play some games in the NHL,” Burakovsky said. “I don’t know. I had the chance to play some games last year, some preseason game, I think I did really good there, and I think the OHL was really good for me too. I think I might be ready to at least try to take the next step to the NHL.”
If not, the Capitals will be patient. His first rookie camp leading Washington was barely one day old, and already Coach Barry Trotz was fielding a question about Burakovsky’s potential.
“The plan is I’m going to watch him,” he said. “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.”
Parse the words, and it’s clear the Capitals envision Burakovsky either in Hershey or Washington this season. To this end, Trotz invoked the journey of a current Washington player, someone he coached in Nashville.
“I’ll have all my exhibition lineups already done, and I’ll be changing them because a guy I expected to be part of our group maybe doesn’t get it done and maybe it’s a Burakovsky who comes in there and shows really well, and I’ll keep giving him more ice time and more opportunity,” Trotz said. “Another guy who’s not earning it will get less. That’s how I found Joel Ward. Joel Ward was probably on July 1 penciled in to be a Milwaukee Admiral. And he never saw Milwaukee unless he was flying over it when he was going home to Toronto.”
If Burakovsky excels, both here at development camp and during the preseason, the 19-year-old could find himself sharing the ice with Ward. It seems inevitable, even with a logjam on the wing this season, even if it doesn’t happen for another season. And whenever that time comes, Burakovsky will be a far cry from his first days in North America, when his sparse free time was suddenly consumed by hockey and the smaller rink felt so cramped.
“The first four games I was really, really bad,” Burakovsky said. “Coach put me on the bench and stuff and I was wondering how I could play so well the year before then come over here and nothing really worked for me. That’s the thing on the small ice. It takes time to learn the game. You don’t just learn over one day. It takes weeks.”
>> As a postscript, here’s Burakovsky on McDavid, a prodigy once granted “exceptional player status” so he could be drafted early into the OHL, at age 15:
“He’s definitely the best player in the world for his age. He could be in the NHL right now. He just has to work on his size, a little bit on his game without the puck. He’s an unbelievable player. In my opinion he’s the new [Sidney] Crosby. He could easily be the best player in the world in a couple years.”