The Washington Capitals’ steadfast mission to convert 19-year-old rookie Andre Burakovsky from wing to center appears to have been delayed. After Burakovsky scored the winning goal Sunday against Florida and skated well upon his promotion from a healthy scratch to the top line, Coach Barry Trotz hinted Burakovsky earned a longer stay beside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
“Not unless injuries may be involved, maybe,” Trotz said, when asked if the Capitals still envisioned Burakovsky at center. “I think right now, probably hold off right now, but it’s out of the realm. I’d probably say it’s something we’ll continue on next year. We want him to be a centerman.”
That desire, however, keeled when Trotz realized the over-ambition, as he called it, of developing two rookies of similar ilk – Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov – at such a critical spot.
Both came to Washington experienced at wing, but the Capitals wanted both anchoring the middle. Kuznetsov has started 16 of 17 games beside Troy Brouwer and Marcus Johansson, and appears the current choice to stay at center. Burakovsky, on the other hand, had played just three times in 11 games through the Winter Classic, before Trotz put him on an express elevator to the top.
“They’re the best players at their age. They’re playing; all they want to do is play and they’ve never been sat out,” Trotz said. “They’ve sort of got over that disappointment of, ‘Okay I’ve been sat out, I know what’s going on.’ We had the long talk, and I think he sort of got his arms around the fact that he’s in the NHL and he’s going to get an opportunity and a coach is going to give him the opportunity and he’s going to be ready for it. You could just tell.”
For New Year’s Day, Trotz deployed a veteran-laden lineup with Burakovsky and Nate Schmidt watching from rinkside, and later reasoned that Burakovsky might “be in another one down the road.” And once he informed Burakovsky of the Swede’s return to the lineup, where he would skate beside the franchise’s greatest goal scorer in Ovechkin and his current landlord in Backstrom, Trotz noticed Burakovsky perk up.
“You could see the smile on his face again, I’d say the enthusiasm back in the eyes, all those things,” Trotz said. “It was just time. He was ready to go. Then he’s got two guys embrace having that young guy on the wing, just like the on the goal he scored. I think Ovi could have probably got it or swung at it, but he just let it go. I think Nickie and Ovi knew they were going to help a young guy and that he could be a big help for them too.”
At even strength, Ovechkin, Burakovsky and Backstrom finished first, second and third, respectively, among Washington’s forwards in on-ice shot differential. Starting 50 percent of his shifts in the defensive zone according to Hockeystats.ca, Burakovsky proved himself capable of performing beside the superstars.
Still, will Trotz play Burakovsky at wing for the next several games or continue the right wing carousel? Burakovsky became the seventh player started there, and Trotz has often chosen by matchup. For two-way “work ethic,” he said, Jay Beagle gets tabbed. For “heaviness,” Tom Wilson. And for Burakovsky, “a more skill element.”
“I think that line can do different things; we can use it different ways,” Trotz said. “I think having those young guys in and out of that spot, it’s good for their development.”