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Andre Burakovsky hopes new mental approach can breathe life into his game

Andre Burakovsky joined the Capitals' top-six after scoring in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press via AP)

Before and after every game, Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky opens his journal to a fresh page and answers a series of questions, writing down what he wants to accomplish that night and then how he felt about his performance immediately after the fact. When he can sense stress creeping in, he turns to the breathing exercises he learned over the summer, sitting or standing in a certain posture to promote deeper and steadier inhales. Anytime he starts to internally berate himself for a shot missed or a puck turned over, he reminds himself to stop.

“Before, I would always just be so mad at myself after games for three or four days,” Burakovsky said. “Now every shift, if I have a bad shift, I just forget about it. I’m just looking forward to the next one.”

Burakovsky’s four-year tenure with Washington has been defined by lengthy slumps, and as this season started with another one – he had no points in the first eight games and had been relegated to the fourth line – perhaps no one was as patient or as positive as he was. Recognizing that his mental angst was hurting his performance last season especially, Burakovsky hired a mental coach over the summer, and he’s kept up the exercises he learned, like the breathing techniques and regular writing. On Washington’s recent road swing through western Canada, Burakovsky scored his first goal of the season against Edmonton. The next morning, he was promoted into the top-six forward corps.

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The stakes are high for him to have a good season. The 23-year-old is in a contract year, due to become a restricted free agent next summer, and while many former first-round picks get long-term deals at that juncture, the Capitals are still waiting for Burakovsky to break through. In large part because of three separate hand injuries, Burakovsky’s point production has dropped in each of the past three seasons. Though the team doesn’t plan to part ways with him at this time, he hasn’t exactly cemented a future in the organization either.

“We just want to get him in an environment where he feels confident and he’s contributing what he has to team success,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said before the season. “We’re not so concerned about contract and points. We want him to develop a consistency in his game that we’re all going to benefit from, and everything else will take care of itself.”

Burakovsky learned of Swedish mental coach Andy Swärd through his work with New Jersey Devils forward Jesper Bratt, a sixth-round pick in 2016 who was one of the league’s most promising rookies last season and credited much of that success to Swärd.

Burakovsky was always one of the best players on whatever team he played for growing up, whether it was in the Swedish league or with the Erie Otters, a Canadian major junior club where he skated alongside Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid. But when he got to the NHL, scoring didn’t come as easily, and Burakovsky didn’t know how to deal. One bad shift would devolve into a bad game, and that would then stretch into a bad month. He endured scoring slumps of 20-plus games in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons.

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It was one extreme to another; then-coach Barry Trotz made Burakovsky a healthy scratch during the Eastern Conference finals and when Burakovsky returned to the lineup, he scored two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, flashing the high-end skill and skating that spurred the Capitals to draft him. He just hasn’t been able to show it throughout a full season.

It was around that playoff series that Burakovsky first contacted Swärd, and when Burakovsky returned to Sweden for the summer, Swärd put him through a series of stress and personality tests over the course of several days. Swärd’s work centers around what he refers to as “the changed state,” which is the “body and mind’s primitive form of reacting” during duress. Certain personality traits become amplified in a negative way, and with athletes in particular, Swärd found that their hands and feet would become significantly colder.

“It’s commonly known as getting stiff ankles or wrists, or the pass is not functioning when it’s game time,” Swärd said. “Everything works in practice, but in a game, you feel you can’t do your shift 100 percent and you feel tired and you can’t see the things in the right way because everything is going so fast. That’s because you’re in a changed state. … Very often, the clients actually themselves lower their performance capacity by 20 to 25 percent.”

Swärd focuses on helping those clients channel their optimal performance even when stressed. Swärd teaches specific breathing techniques, and he sent Burakovsky a journal with questions for before and after games as a way to monitor trends and analyze why he reacted the way he did in a certain situation and how to change that next time. Among the prompts Burakovsky writes about before games is a list of the six most important things he needs to do to play well and a plan of what he wants to do on the ice. Swärd said that a person in “the changed state” will always challenge that agenda, but reflecting on words written when in a normal state can bring a certain confidence and erase doubt.

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“I’m waking my brain up a little bit when I’m doing that,” Burakovsky said. “You get your mind ready.”

As Burakovsky has been going through that routine in this first month of the season, rather than dwelling on all of the things he did wrong in the last game, he’s visualized what might happen in the next one, keeping his stick on the ice and his head up, waiting for the pass. And when the puck lands on his blade, he shoots without hesitating. It was the way his first goal unfolded last week, and Burakovsky raised both arms while screaming in celebration and also relief.

“Last year, I really was hard on myself and gave myself a really hard time,” Burakovsky said. “That’s something I told myself that I have to change because I can’t be so negative on myself when things aren’t going my way. I just have to find a way to be positive about it, and I think I’ve done that.”

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