Through his first 38 games this season, Andre Burakovsky had four goals, six assists and a healthy helping of self-doubt.
Today, the Capitals’ lanky left winger celebrates his 21st birthday on the hottest scoring streak of his NHL career. Since being promoted to the Caps’ second line following a hand injury to center Jay Beagle, Burakovsky has six goals and seven assists in his last 10 games and five goals and three assists during a seven-game scoring streak.
“Two things have happened,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said when asked about Burakovsky’s sudden breakout.
“No. 1, when he started where he did this year (on the fourth line) he let that affect his play. I don’t want to say this, but seeing what I’ve seen with other players, he was doubting himself. He wasn’t quite accepting where he was at in his positon and therefor he let everything else clutter what he needed to do in terms of his work ethic and all the things to get on track.”
That’s when Trotz suggested Burakovsky sit down with mental strength coach Eric Hoffberg, a former special ops soldier who was hired by the Caps last season.
“All of us tried, but I think (Burakovsky) did a lot of talking with Eric Hoffberg, who got him in a good place. He started getting a little bit more opportunity because he was earning it, even in practice, and he sort of ran with it. But it wasn’t until he really got all the clutter out of his head. So, he wasted a lot of time thinking about things that weren’t in his control. When he realized he could only control (so much) his game started getting better and I tried to get him moved up.”
Burakovsky acknowledges that he let his own expectations, along with being sequestered to the Caps’ fourth line, get in the way of him being a productive player. It wasn’t until he started finding value in the little things – like being a plus player and improving in his own zone – that he began seeing his offense come back.
“When you start getting frustrated, that’s when (bad) stuff is going to come up,” he said. “You just have to stick with it and believe that it’s going to come.
“I’ve been feeling it for a long time now. My game is really coming back and it feels really good right now.”
Of course, playing with a budding star like Evgeny Kuznetsov and a savvy veteran like Justin Williams hasn’t hurt. Over the past 10 games Kuznetsov has two goals and 14 assists and Williams has four goals and five assists.
Williams said he noticed at the start of the season Burakovsky was waiting too long to shoot and his shots were getting blocked or deflected. Now, he’s shooting the puck quicker, making it more difficult to stop.
“That comes with learning the NHL and learning you don’t have enough time. If you think you have two seconds, you have one.
“Guys have good sticks and you’ve got to get your shot off quick. It’s not always how hard it is. It’s how quick you can get it off and how accurate you can be with it.”
With Marcus Johansson expected to rejoin third-line wingers Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson during the Caps’ current three-game road trip, a position he’s likely to keep when Beagle returns from his injury, Burakovsky appears to have nailed down a spot on the Caps’ second line.
“I’m just enjoying playing with him,” Kuznetsov, 23, said. “He listens to me and Willy and we have some connection. You can see we’re all playing better as a line. He’s a smart young guy and he listens to us. It’s a cool moment for us to grow up together as NHL players and I hope we’re going to play many years together.”
Williams, 34, said he’s happy to play alongside a center as talented as Kuznetsov, saying he sees the game like few players in the league.
“Kuzy’s one of the best I’ve ever played with at finding guys and giving them that extra second because of his deception,” said Williams, who’s on pace to have his most productive season in four years.
“He’s very mature for his age on the ice. When he comes to the bench and has something to say you’re going to listen to him because it seems like he thinks the game a step ahead of everyone else. You have to expect the unexpected from him.”