Instead of calling for the puck by saying, “I’m right here,” Andre Burakovsky knows his linemates will understand him when he says, “Jag är ju precis här.”
That’s one advantage of the Washington Capitals’ all-Swedish second line, which Coach Barry Trotz nicknamed the “Tre Kronor line,” a nod to Sweden’s national men’s hockey team. But the on-ice rapport between Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and Burakovsky runs deeper than a shared language, going back to how they grew up playing a similar style.
“I think we kind of see the game the same way,” Johansson said. “I mean, we all play a little different, but we see the game the same way, and I think that really helps. I think it gives us that extra little chemistry, and we’re enjoying playing together.”
Burakovsky said that from the moment he started to learn how to play hockey, the instruction involved a puck, unlike some other countries that focus more on skating skills first. Even off the ice, stickhandling and control were emphasized by using a ball instead of a puck in a roller hockey game called “bandy.” Johansson said Swedish players “are used to holding onto the puck and making those small plays.”
“What you find with them is they obviously all have got a real good skill set,” Trotz said. “They’re on the pucks, but they like a lot of those crossing plays, give-and-gos. . . . They sort of do it as a tandem of three. They know what each other’s moves are.”
Unlike North American youth hockey with its travel teams, young Swedes play for the team in their town with their neighborhood friends, and there aren’t tryouts or cuts at that stage. The instruction is uniform across the country, and the focus is on skill development, with teams not playing many games until more competitive levels around age 15. While Backstrom grew up in Sweden’s hockey hotbed and went on to play for a storied team in Brynäs, Johansson and Burakovsky are from younger markets in the south of Sweden, where hockey had to compete with soccer.
Per Bjurman, an NHL correspondent for the daily Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, said “to always put the team before yourself” is the unofficial motto of Swedish hockey, potentially stemming from players growing up playing in tight-knit communities. It’s also likely the reason Sweden’s best players are known more for their passing than shooting.
“Even if you have a good chance to score, you always want to give it to the guy who has even a better chance,” Burakovsky said. “I don’t know what it is, but I just think it’s the culture of hockey in Sweden, the way we play.”
Backstrom and Johansson have been implored to shoot more by NHL coaches throughout their career, but that’s never been an issue for Burakovsky, who took the fifth-most even-strength shots per 60 minutes on the team last season.
“Me and JoJo are playing kind of the same way,” Backstrom said. “You know, Burky, it looks like he’s more of the sniper on that line. . . . It always helps to have a shooter in the line, and I mean, he’s not scared of shooting pucks.”
The all-Swedish trio combined for two goals, both scored by Burakovsky, in the Capitals’ first game at Pittsburgh. Trotz has also trusted the line with challenging defensive assignments, matching it against the top lines of the New York Islanders and the Colorado Avalanche. Burakovsky called it the “perfect combination,” with Backstrom as the line’s elite distributer and “so smart,” while Burakovsky and Johansson have speed on the wing.
“We have literally everything in our line,” Burakovsky said. “We have skill, brain, speed and shots.”
Burakovsky said the trio’s chemistry comes from more than a shared Swedish background; the three also have forged a friendship in Washington. As a 19-year-old rookie two seasons ago, Burakovsky lived with Backstrom for the first few months of his NHL career, joking around that he’s like “Nicky’s son.” Trotz’s repeated advice to Burakovsky: “Listen to Nick. He’ll help you.”
“He’s still on me about that,” Burakovsky said. “Me and Nick are walking together in the hallway, and Barry has come up and has been like, ‘Nicky, is Burky listening to you?’ ”
Burakovsky said he and Johansson started spending time together outside of the rink on his second day in town. The three players often get together with their families for dinners at either Johansson’s home or Backstrom’s. Those close bonds are transferring to the ice.
“I do think we have really good chemistry out there,” Burakovsky said. “We’re really close friends, too, so that’s got to be one part of it. I think just the way we play in Sweden, the way the coaches teach us to play when we were kids, is the way we’re playing.”