It was more than 30 minutes into the Washington Capitals’ practice when forward Andre Burakovsky was again relegated from participant to observer. The team ran through its line rushes, a preview of the next game’s likely lineup, while Burakovsky stood off to the side and watched as 12 other forwards took their turn on the ice. There wasn’t a place for him once again, and he is expected to be scratched for a second straight game.
Washington’s oft-injured lineup is getting healthier, and if right wing Tom Wilson plays Friday night against the Carolina Hurricanes after missing three games with a concussion, the team will have its entire forward corps available for just the third time this season. That Burakovsky isn’t currently considered one of the team’s top 12 forwards when everyone is healthy is telling, and this being a contract year the possible ramifications are obvious and don’t need explaining to him.
“I’m not worried about my future,” Burakovsky said. “I know what I can do out there. I think I’ve proven what I can do, and sometimes you just have to battle a little bit harder than you wanted to. That’s going to happen. Right now, it’s kind of what I’m doing, and I’m just going to be positive about this and learn from it and come back strong.”
Here is the Capitals' conundrum with Burakovsky: he’s due to become a restricted free agent at the end of this season, so to retain his negotiating rights, Washington would have to tender him a qualifying offer, at minimum matching his current salary of $3.25 million. But with how Burakovsky’s production has steadily declined over the past three seasons, the team might not want to continue paying him that much,
If the Capitals don’t qualify him, he can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, which could leave Washington losing an asset that was the organization’s 2013 first-round pick, for nothing in return. General Manager Brian MacLellan could choose to trade Burakovsky before the late February deadline, but he’d be selling low with any potential return on a fast, skilled young forward not expected to be impressive.
Maybe what’s even more frustrating for Washington is that it’s seen what Burakovsky could be, and quitting on that isn’t an easy call when he’s still just 23, especially considering the organization is lacking high-end forward talent in its prospect ranks. Burakovsky scored two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals, a performance that helped put the Capitals in a position to win a franchise-first Stanley Cup.
Just three seasons ago, Burakovsky scored 12 goals with eight assists in 26 games from January through March to finish the year with 17 goals and 21 assists, his best season since he made his debut as a 19-year-old. The next year, he played 15 fewer games because of a broken right hand, his production dipping slightly as a result, and Washington signed him to a two-year, $6 million deal, confident that Burakovsky’s year was just hampered by the injury. The belief then was he would continue to establish himself as part of the organization’s future, perhaps warranting a long-term contract once that bridge deal was finished.
But Burakovsky broke his left thumb last season, and he played in fewer games and scored fewer points again. The flashes of obvious talent come less frequently now, even as Burakovsky, to his credit, has been working with a mental coach in search of more consistency in his attitude and play. After Wilson got hurt last week, Burakovsky was promoted to the top line beside center Nicklas Backstrom and captain Alex Ovechkin. In his first game there, Burakovsky acknowledged he played poorly, but his performance was redeemed by scoring the game-winning goal against the Arizona Coyotes. He remained in that first-line right wing spot against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but after he took two penalties in the third period, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch before Washington’s game against the Detroit Red Wings on Tuesday.
“Other players had taken more advantage of the opportunity than he had recently,” Coach Todd Reirden said that morning. “For me, it’s a rewards/earned ice time situation where there’s a lot of competition. What happens is when players get opportunities and they play well, then it creates competition. Some have to win, some have to lose in that competition. Right now, that’s what we’ve chosen to go with. Now, Andre is still a very young player, huge upside, skill level is really exceptional. This is just where we’re at today, and that can change day by day.”
T.J. Oshie’s return from a concussion was what pushed Burakovsky out of the lineup against Detroit, and now that Wilson is expected to return Friday, Burakovsky’s climb back into it has gotten steeper. Winger Chandler Stephenson is also expected to be a healthy scratch, and while he’s scored fewer points than Burakovsky this season, Stephenson plays on the penalty kill. Burakovsky, on the other hand, doesn’t usually play on any special teams.
Averaging 0.28 points per game this season, Burakovsky is on pace for his worst season, well behind the 0.42 points per game he had as a rookie, when he finished with nine goals and 13 assists in 53 games.
“He’s still a young player,” Reirden said. “We’ve had him here for a while, so we think he’s older than he is. He’s still in a process of trying to really solidify himself as a full-time NHLer that can score at the rate he hopes and we envision him scoring at here as well.”
The issue is that this has become an annual story line with Burakovsky. He’s had numerous rough patches followed by healthy scratches in each of his five seasons, and it’s under two different coaches now. He scored with relative ease in Sweden’s professional league and then playing alongside now-Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid in the Ontario Hockey League before getting drafted. He’s had to adjust his expectations in the NHL, and as he rates his own performance after every game, he’s focused more on his overall play rather than just if he tallied a point. Scoring slumps used to cause other areas of his game to deteriorate, so he’s pledged to be more mindful of the little things and his play away from the puck.
Of course he’s frustrated, too, but beating himself up over his own game made things worse in the past, so Burakovsky has instead opted for optimism while others are starting to question how much longer he’ll be in Washington.
“You can always do more, but I think my game has been pretty positive from my side," he said. “I don’t think there’s anything in particular that I’m going to really change. I think guys on the team have been playing really well and deserve to play, and they’ve done a little bit more than maybe I have in the past now. We’ve been winning, so that’s the most important thing. When I get the chance, I’m just going to go in and do my thing, play my game."
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