“I wasn’t nervous,” Burakovsky said. “I’m still playing in the best league in the world. It’s not like you’re going to disappear from the world. You’re still doing what you love. It was just a regular day. . . . These are the guys I love, and this is the organization that I love. There’s been a lot of talking, a lot of rumors. That’s out of my control, so I don’t really know how to answer all of this. I’ve just been trying to stay away from it a little bit.
"But it was a little bit of a relief for sure.”
Just two months earlier, it seemed a near-certainty that Burakovsky would be traded by now. His production diminished, and he was a healthy scratch for a string of games in December, at which point other teams started inquiring about the 24-year-old’s availability. The Capitals wanted a forward comparable in age back — young but not a prospect either. But with Burakovsky finding more offensive consistency over the past month and the team not getting its desired return, Washington ultimately decided it would rather have him in its lineup than in another one.
“I think he’s slowly getting his confidence back. He’s starting to put up some points playing with a little more energy,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “My expectation is he carries this forward and continues to play at that level to get back to where he was before this year. … With his name being out, there’s a lot of teams that checked in and made some [inquiries], talked about some transactions, and nothing really transpired.”
While Burakovsky is here to stay for the rest of the season and seems to have a solid grasp on his third-line left wing spot, his future in Washington remains uncertain. He will be a restricted free agent this summer, and the Capitals would have to tender him a $3.25 million qualifying offer to retain his rights. If they don’t, Burakovsky would become an unrestricted free agent July 1, at which point Washington risks losing a 2013 first-round pick for nothing. Another option is that, as the organization did with forwards Brett Connolly and Devante Smith-Pelly the past two years, Burakovsky and the Capitals could agree to a new contract in the week between the non-tender deadline and the start of free agency.
It would be understandable if Burakovsky welcomed a change of scenery. He has been passed by winger Jakub Vrana, who is a year younger, on Washington’s forward depth chart, and Burakovsky has been a healthy scratch in each of his five NHL seasons. His ice time this season is at a career-low 11:21 per game, in part because he doesn’t play on either special teams unit. But even in the days leading up to Monday’s trade deadline, Burakovsky was adamant that his preference was to remain with the Capitals.
“I haven’t even thought about going somewhere else,” Burakovsky said. “This is where I belong, and as long as I’m here, I’m going to do everything it takes to stay.”
Ask Burakovsky and he will tell you that he’s not playing all that differently now than he was earlier in the season, that he’s just getting the breaks he wasn’t then. He has two goals and six assists in his past 11 games, a stretch that has seen his third line catch fire again with right wing Brett Connolly and center Lars Eller also chipping in a combined eight goals and eight assists. With 20 points in 58 games this season, Burakovsky is just five points short of his total from last season, though he has averaged fewer per game.
As much as players might try to block out the outside noise, they tend to be aware of what’s being said about them, especially as it concerns trade rumors. “Obviously, it’s not what you want,” Burakovsky said. But perhaps it acted as a bit of motivation, too.
“I think the trade deadline passing definitely takes the pressure off one of our linemates there,” Connolly said coyly. “It’s not an easy situation for anyone, and there’s no secret there was speculation. He knew about it. We all knew about it. He just kept grinding and kept working at his game, and he’s been really good the last three weeks, four weeks. He’s been making good plays and playing the right way and playing a little harder and finishing his checks a little bit more and blocking shots, doing some more team things that we need from him.”
Part of the Capitals’ decision to hold on to Burakovsky was a bet on him getting hot down the stretch, something he has done before. The potential always has been there for him, a strong skater with an above-average shot, but to this point in his career, it has come in spurts rather than sustained stretches. And for a player who has historically fed off confidence, sensing some from the Capitals could make all the difference.
“I think I’m just going to keep playing like I have,” Burakovsky said. “It’s funny. You’re getting some easy points right now compared to earlier in the year when you deserved some more and didn’t get anything. Now it’s just coming a little easier. I’m focusing on the little small details, and that might be why I’m having more success.”