For a few minutes at the Washington Capitals’ practice Monday, a new window of opportunity had seemingly opened for forward Andre Burakovsky. T.J. Oshie had crashed into the net and was slow to get off the ice before leaving it altogether for the locker room, and Burakovsky was suddenly thrust onto the top line with captain Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom. For a player who hasn’t gotten into a rhythm yet this season, that sort of promotion, even if it were on a temporary basis, could have presented yet another chance for him to turn his year around.
But then Oshie returned to the ice, injury scare averted, and Burakovsky was once again pushed out. Based on the Capitals’ line rushes in practice Monday, Burakovsky is poised to be a healthy scratch for a fourth straight game when Washington plays host to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night.
“He’s just got to continue to come to work every day with the right attitude, which he has,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “He’s got so much skill and talent and had a great day of practice again today. It’s a difficult situation right now; the players are making it difficult for our staff to pick the guys who should be playing each night, and that’s a good thing.”
Because Burakovsky, the Capitals’ 2013 first-round pick, is currently out of the lineup, Washington has fielded calls on his availability from other teams, according to a person with knowledge of the situation, and Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston reported that the Vancouver Canucks are one of the clubs interested in the speedy 23-year-old winger. A spike in trade rumors is natural when a young, skilled forward is in this situation, potentially in need of a change of scenery. But while the Capitals are listening to offers for Burakovsky, they’re not in a rush to part with him and not actively looking to deal him. They’re not closed off to the idea, either, especially if there’s something worthwhile in return.
Rather than trade him, Washington would prefer to see Burakovsky elevate his play down the stretch — he’s got five goals and three assists in 29 games — but with the team on a five-game winning streak, other players have done more to earn their place in the lineup. Even when Reirden did choose to make a personnel tweak in the second game of a back-to-back set Saturday against the Buffalo Sabres, it was to get winger Chandler Stephenson back in because he’s needed on the penalty kill. When the forward corps is healthy, Burakovsky doesn’t play on any special teams.
With Burakovsky a restricted free agent at the end of this season, retaining him would mean tendering a qualifying offer of at least $3.25 million, matching his current salary. The Capitals are hopeful he can produce more consistently whenever he does get back in the lineup, putting his often streaky play behind him, and naturally earn another contract with the team.
Monday’s practice is a good example of why the Capitals are proceeding with caution when it comes to any trade offers for Burakovsky. Had Oshie actually been hurt, Burakovsky might have found himself back in the top-six forward corps. While Washington has good forward depth, it doesn’t have a lot of players with the sort of offensive upside possessed by Burakovsky, a strong skater with a good shot. The Capitals haven’t had their full roster available to them all season, and they’ve dealt with more injuries this season than in any other in recent memory.
While Burakovsky’s production is currently down — he’s on pace to finish the season with the fewest points of his career — he tallied 17 goals with 21 assists just three seasons ago, and he’s also the player who scored two goals in the Capitals' Game 7 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.
Hand injuries each of the past two seasons might be the reason Burakovsky’s production has deteriorated, but he’s also acknowledged some of the struggles are mental, something he’s been proactive in addressing by working with a mental coach this summer in Sweden. That Jakub Vrana, who was drafted a year after Burakovsky, has passed him on the depth chart has probably not helped Burakovsky’s confidence.
With Washington trying to repeat as Stanley Cup champion, the Capitals aren’t as concerned about future assets, draft picks and prospects as they are about winning now, so any deal for Burakovsky would probably have to involve another roster player in return, preferably another speedy middle-six forward who could skate on the third line when the team is healthy but also fill in on one of the top two lines. Under General Manager Brian MacLellan, the Capitals have acquired a defenseman ahead of the trade deadline every season, and especially with the injury to Christian Djoos — out indefinitely after surgery on his left thigh last week — expect Washington to bolster its blue-line depth again this year. But with the team’s top two defensive pairs set and a young third pairing playing well while veteran Brooks Orpik recovers from an arthroscopic right knee procedure a month ago, it’s unlikely the Capitals would trade Burakovsky for a defenseman who might not play significant minutes for them.
The NHL enters its holiday roster freeze Wednesday, suspending all trades and other movement until after Christmas, and Burakovsky is unlikely to be dealt by then. The Capitals are content to be patient, perhaps allowing Burakovsky an opportunity to quiet any trade talk with a strong second half of the season. While he’s probably out Wednesday, Reirden indicated he doesn’t want Burakovsky idle for too long.
“All of those things kind of go into the decision when you’re putting people back in — what opponent you’re against, is it back-to-back or is it not, how’s their game trending, what the opposition looks like in terms of matchup-wise,” Reirden said. “All of that stuff plays into it. But it’s been difficult lately with how well all of our forwards are playing.”
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