What to do with forward Andre Burakovsky was something the Washington Capitals’ front office deliberated throughout the season. He is still young, skilled and speedy with the pedigree of a first-round pick just six years ago, but his production has stalled. His points per game average declined each of the past three seasons until he finished with 12 goals and 13 assists in 76 games this season.
Washington had to decide whether it should deal him by the trade deadline, and when the team opted to hold on to him for the time being, it set up its current conundrum: whether to tender him a pricey qualifying offer by next month’s deadline with the intent of re-signing him as a restricted free agent. When asked about the Capitals’ plans on that front last month, General Manager Brian MacLellan didn’t exactly give Burakovsky a vote of confidence. Washington is expected to run into salary cap constraints this summer with winger Jakub Vrana due a considerable raise and four unrestricted free agents on the roster to consider.
“We’ll talk it through,” MacLellan said. “I mean, a frustrating year for him. At the end, he kind of found it. We’re going to have to talk about how we want to allocate that money and what role he would play on our team going forward.”
In the midst of a career season with the Florida Panthers, 25-year-old Frank Vatrano signed a three-year, $7.6 million extension in February for an annual cap hit of $2.53 million. Vatrano finished with 24 goals and 15 assists in his first full NHL season. Though Burakovsky is a year younger than Vatrano, he has more experience with 328 career games to Vatrano’s 205. With New Jersey winger Miles Wood, 23, coming off a strong 2017-18 campaign with 19 goals and 13 assists in 76 games, the Devils rewarded him with a four-year extension worth $2.75 million annually. Similarly, Anaheim’s Ondrej Kase had 20 goals and 18 assists as a 22-year-old to get a three-year deal carrying a $2.6 million cap hit this season. Wood and Kase had played just two NHL seasons at the time of those contracts. Burakovsky has accrued five seasons.
With those as comparables, extending a $3.25 million qualifying offer to Burakovsky could be considered an overpay, though not a prohibitive one. Another issue is that Burakovsky is arbitration eligible, so if Washington retains his negotiating rights by tendering him a qualifying offer and he opts to reject it, as most restricted free agents do, then he or the team can later elect to have a third-party mediator rule on either a one-year or two-year salary.
In recent offseasons, the Capitals have shown an appetite to avoid arbitration because it could lock the team into a binding cap hit it’s not comfortable with. Two years ago, Washington non-tendered forward Brett Connolly, which would have made him an unrestricted free agent on July 1, but the Capitals continued negotiating with him and re-signed him to a two-year deal. They did the same with forward Devante Smith-Pelly last June, and that’s the most likely course of action they will take with Burakovsky. The risk is losing the 2013 first-round pick for nothing if he chooses to sign elsewhere July 1.
“I love Washington. I love my teammates. I love everyone around — everything, the organization,” Burakovsky said. “My goal is to stay, and hopefully I will be able to.”
That echoes what Burakovsky said throughout the season, when he was the subject of trade speculation because of his contract status and his slumping production. Burakovsky scored just five goals and four assists in his first 41 games of the season, but he heated up in January, roughly a month before the trade deadline. In his final 35 games, Burakovsky had seven goals and nine assists, his confidence perhaps buoyed by the Capitals’ decision not to deal him. He tallied just one goal and one assist during Washington’s first-round series with the Carolina Hurricanes, but he was one of the team’s best players in Game 7, and he showed a similar knack for rising to the occasion with two goals in the Capitals’ Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning a year earlier. But for all the growth Burakovsky showed at times this season, he finished with the same number of goals and assists as in the 2017-18 campaign, when he appeared in 20 fewer games.
“It has been up and down for sure,” Burakovsky said. “I’ve been moving around a lot, up and down the lineup, sitting out a couple games. It was tough. My fifth year [in the NHL] obviously, I want to be more consistent, and I think I learned a lot. I worked a lot with my mental coach, and I think I am on the right path for sure. I think overall, my game has been pretty good and taking steps without the puck that maybe I didn’t do last year. I think I played way better without the puck, and I am pretty happy with my season even if the points hasn’t been as much as I wanted.”