At some point over the next several days, before his self-imposed Friday deadline, Barry Trotz and his coaching staff will gather together, review their roster and make the decisions that so far have remained unclear. They will think about placing Tom Wilson and Dmitry Orlov on injured reserve. They will mull over the open defensive spots, and the open forwards spots, and the vacancy at second-line center. And they will decide what to do with Andre Burakovsky.
“Right now, he’s playing like an NHL player, yes,” Trotz said. “But I wouldn’t say he’s on the team, no.”
The 19-year-old Swedish forward has held his own throughout preseason practices and games, backing up the promise shown during development camp and rookie camp, when the Capitals first moved him to center. Trotz has expressed no issue with returning Burakovsky to the wing, should the situation arise, but Tuesday’s on-ice session was spent between Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich on the second line.
Worst-case scenario, Burakovsky reports to Hershey for his first American Hockey League season, centers the Bears’ top line and remains atop the short list for call-ups. Both Trotz and General Manager Brian MacLellan have no desire to handle Burakovsky’s development like Wilson’s last season, when the forward played 82 NHL games during his rookie season but averaged fewer than eight minutes per game.
“Two trains of thought are, take the best players and as long as you can use young players at decent level, I have no problem with them playing,” Trotz said. “If you’re not going to use them at a decent level, then play them at the level where they’re going to get the most minutes and the most time.
“Then for some guys, like [Burakovsky] and guys like [Liam] O’Brien and even [Evgeny Kuznetsov] who’s a young guy, the more they can play at the National League level, even practice, helps them. That’s why you can have a young guy go down and play in junior or whatever, it just helps. Even practice, taking passes at the National Hockey League level, the speed, how quickly they get it over and think, it’s really good.”
Burakovsky, who will likely center the Brouwer-Laich line again Wednesday at Buffalo, said his comfort level has grown each game, culminating in a strong performance Sunday at Montreal, when he won a puck battle behind the net and set up Joel Ward’s game-winning goal.
“I felt much more comfortable tonight actually,” Burakovsky said. “I felt like I could really play my own game, take care of the puck all the time, do stuff with the puck and really play my game. Today I was feeling really comfortable out there.”
According to Trotz, Kuznetsov will center Jason Chimera and Ward against the Sabres, while Marcus Johansson, a one-time candidate for the second-line center job, will remain on the wing. At practice Tuesday, Johansson played on the fourth line alongside Michael Latta and Chris Brown.
“I thought Marcus played pretty well in Montreal,” Trotz said. “Started a little bit slowly. He’s getting better every game, which is what you want to see. Talking to the staff, talking to Mac who have been around with the organization for a long time, they said Marcus is traditionally a slow starter here, so that’s not unexpected from past history. I thought he was using his speed a little bit better last game. I thought he was playing a pretty solid game. I liked him much better last game than I did the game before.”
On Tuesday, Trotz divvied up the rosters into, first, veterans most likely making the Capitals and, second, players still needing to improve, for whom “the next two games are going to decide what happens.” That group included blue-line candidates Connor Carrick, Steven Oleksy and Patrick Wey, while veterans John Erskine and Jack Hillen practiced with the first group.
The full roster traveling to Buffalo is listed below: