Andre Burakovsky stood on the ice, a smile stretching across his face, as a dozen or so wide-eyed pee-wee hockey players stared up at him.
This was after the Washington Capitals’ practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex this past Saturday, as Burakovsky emerged from the locker room to offer pointers, high-fives and memories to a practicing youth hockey organization from Prince William County in Virginia. He gathered a puck and dangled it through a crowd of kids, none standing taller than his stick, and later coasted toward a young goalie before lifting a backhand shot into the top-left corner of the net.
Then the 22-year-old Burakovsky drifted along the boards, laughing as parents snapped pictures of him from the bleachers. All the kids laughed, too. He is in the process of recapturing this, hockey as mindless and fun, when the practice rink turns into an arena, and the adoring parents turn into adoring fans, and he is skating on the Capitals’ second line.
Burakovsky hit a rut at the start of this season, his fourth in the NHL and his first since signing a two-year, $6 million contract this past summer. He missed 20 games after undergoing surgery for a broken thumb. The recovery took longer than expected. Then he was a healthy scratch for a few games, and when he did play he sometimes skated limited minutes on the fourth line. His name was floated in trade rumors that, for now, are unsubstantiated. He had the flu before the Capitals’ recent bye week and didn’t touch the ice for more than a week.
When he returned to the lineup this past Friday, Burakovsky was one of the team’s few brights spots in a flat loss, but he still has only eight points (three goals, five assists) in 23 games played. Now, with the Capitals’ on a three-game slide and searching for any offensive spark, the skilled, speedy Burakovsky could use a boost for himself and his team.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I’ve been really off this year, it’s just been …” Burakovsky said, his voice trailing off as he thought about what he wants to improve on in the back half of the Capitals’ schedule. “I’ve had some good games, and the next one hasn’t been as good. I just have to keep it more even. I’ve been creating a lot of chances in every game that I’ve played, but it’s just the production hasn’t really been there for me.”
Against the Montreal Canadiens, Burakovsky rejoined the lineup with the fourth line centered by Jay Beagle. But Capitals Coach Barry Trotz predicted before the game that Burakovsky would end up on a higher line. He did, finishing the game on the second line before starting with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie in a loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday. He was humming at times against the Canadiens, twice hitting the post, creating high-danger chances in an otherwise listless offensive performance from his team. He even saw time on the top power-play unit in the first period.
Burakovsky has never had trouble flashing his skill and potential. He has had trouble sustaining it. Last season, his offensive ability burst forth for an 18-game stretch that ended with a rhythm-cracking hand injury in mid-February. While playing on the Capitals’ third line with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly, he collected seven goals and eight assists, scored in four straight games and had a three-assist night in that time period. He finished the regular season with 12 goals and 23 assists. Then he provided a needed lift in the Capitals’ second-round playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, sliding up the lineup to play with Backstrom and Oshie and contributing on two goals — with a goal and an assist — in an elimination-avoiding Game 5 win.
He did not carry that level into this season, but Burakovsky is confident he can recapture it alongside Backstrom and Oshie. Backstrom is one of the NHL’s most skilled passers. Oshie, who has scored just one goal since the start of December, is a veteran who can create scoring opportunities for teammates. Burakovsky thinks he can complement the pair with his speed, and he noted he has to use that to take the puck outside and open up the ice. He said he can fall into the habit of trying to stickhandle through the middle of the zone, something he often did while coming up in juniors but that isn’t so easy to do in the NHL.
He, like the rest of a Capitals team that hasn’t scored a five-on-five goal in nearly 125 minutes, is aiming for a more simple approach.
“His biggest asset, he’s got speed, he’s got skill,” Trotz said when asked what he wanted to see from Burakovsky when the forward returned to the lineup. “Use your assets in the right area. Commit to outside speed, don’t always go into the junk pile in the middle of the ice when there are eight guys there. Use some of the assets and take the space that is given.”
On Friday morning, Burakovsky sat in front of his locker at Kettler and said it was a rough first half of the season. On Friday night, he stood in front of his locker at Capital One Arena and said he felt fresh against the Canadiens and ready to build on a solid first game back. On Sunday, he skated well and earned more measured praise from his coach. The questions will keep coming until the results provide their own answers.
Burakovsky says he is set on remembering those hot stretches, when the net seems big and the ice feels like it is floating beneath his skates. Right now, that is what he has to build off.
“The worst thing you can do when you’re not playing your best hockey is to get frustrated,” Oshie said when asked what his advice to Burakovsky would be. “I think that compounds the problem. If he were to ask, I think I’d say to stay positive, just keep working, and as much as he can just feel free out there and don’t feel like you’re hindered by any bad play previously, just go out there and try to play your game.”
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