For a second straight day, forward Andre Burakovsky was the last Capitals player off the ice, exhausted from the extra conditioning and frustrated he was in this position once again. It’s become an unfortunate annual tradition for Burakovsky, struggling for a stretch of games before Coach Barry Trotz makes him a healthy scratch as a way to spark the streaky 22-year-old.
In his fourth NHL season, Burakovsky knows he should be past this routine, that his play should be steady and consistent enough that one bad game doesn’t turn into a string of them. He was out of the lineup for Washington’s 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Saturday night, and after how well the Capitals played in that game, it’s unclear if Burakovsky will play against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night either.
After Sunday’s practice, Burakovsky opened up about his mental battle, and how that often translates to his play on the ice. Overcoming that is the next step for a young player for whom the organization still has high hopes.
“Confidence comes with everything,” Burakovsky said. “As soon as you do one good thing and you get credit for it, or let’s say you have a game where you have a lot of ice time and then you get confidence from that, that you feel that someone really thinks you’re going good in this game and [the coach] believes in you in this game and stuff like that. When you get all that, you’re feeling good about yourself and it’s a lot more easy to play.
“And then if you play seven or eight minutes and you know you’ve been doing something wrong, or you haven’t played good in the game, at least I get really hard on myself. Because I know what I can do, and I know what I’m capable to do. I get really hard on myself, and then it’s tough to create something and get going. When you start thinking about your mistakes and what you’re doing wrong, then it’s tough to go out for the next shift and do something good. That’s just how it works. I think just my game and everything, I just think I have to learn to get more mentally strong. I would say I’m not weak, but I’m a thinker.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve always been hard on myself, even when I was like 9 years old and had a bad game, I was [angry] at myself and thinking about what I did wrong. I’ve been doing that my whole life. I just have to start thinking a little bit more positively about my game. If I do [make a] mistake, just [screw] it and come back the next shift and prove that you’re better than your last one. I mean, that’s kind of what I’m going to try to do when I come back.”
Two years ago, Burakovsky went through a goal drought of 25 games, scratched for a handful of contests in his sophomore campaign. When he finally snapped that, he caught fire for 10 goals over the next 20 games. Then last season, Burakovsky went 26 games without a goal before Trotz scratched him. Burakovsky scored in his first game back, and playing mostly with center Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, Burakovsky finished the season with 10 goals and 15 assists in his last 37 games, missing some time with a broken hand.
He added three goals in Washington’s last three playoff games, when he was skating beside center Nicklas Backstrom and winger T.J. Oshie. The Capitals expected him to carry that into this season and improve his production, especially after the team parted with top-six forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams in the offseason. But then Burakovsky started the season in a rut, eventually moved off the top line with Backstrom and Oshie. He scored his first goal in the eighth game of the season and then he broke his left thumb the next day, out for 20 games.
Trotz was patient as Burakovsky initially struggled in his return from that injury. A two-goal game against Dallas on Dec. 19 seemed to bring some optimism that it could propel Burakovsky, but then the team played poorly over the next three games, and with Washington in an early two-goal hole against Boston on Thursday night, Trotz demoted Burakovsky to the fourth line. It was the second straight night he failed to crack nine minutes of ice time, and Burakovsky was then a healthy scratch for the next game against New Jersey.
“He wants me to be a little more hungry on the pucks. I agree,” Burakovsky said of his conversation with Trotz. “There’s some things that I feel like I’m not really back to after my injury. I guess it’s been taking a little bit longer time than I was expecting. … Obviously, it’s not an excuse or anything, but in the last two seasons, I’ve been gone for like 40 games total. It’s quite a bit of games that you’re missing.”
With Burakovsky a restricted free agent this summer, Washington re-signed the 2013 first-round pick to a two-year bridge deal worth $6 million. With three goals and five assists in 19 games, Burakovsky is on the worst goal-scoring pace of his still-young career, and his point pace matches that of his rookie year. Asked if his thumb injury is still nagging him or if he’s just not rediscovered his timing in the 10 games he’s been back from that, Burakovsky said, “I’m not going to say something feels off.”
“I mean, I’ve been having these feeling before when I’ve been struggling,” he continued. “As soon as I get some confidence back and doing something good, I’m going to take off. I did it last year, and I did it the year before.
“The only thing I have to work on my game is to keep that up for a full year. I can’t have 10 good games and then 10 bad games. I mean, that’s part of being a pro, I guess, showing up to the rink and doing your thing and you play like you should every night. That’s what it takes in this league, and it’s something I have to work on. I’m still 22, but I’ve been here for four years, so I should be able to turn it around soon. I’m just going to try to be more positive on myself.”