Andre Burakovsky remembers the awkward feeling he had when he first walked into the Capitals locker room as a wide-eyed 19-year-old rookie trying to make a good first impression.
“I was kind of nervous to fit in with the guys,” Burakovsky said following a recent workout at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where the Caps begin training camp today with off-ice testing, physicals and promotional shoots. “This year it’s real fun to be back with the guys and I’m not nervous at all, actually.”
Last season was an interesting rookie year for Burakovsky, a quiet and talented forward taken by the Capitals with the 23rd pick of the 2013 NHL draft. Coming off a 41-goal, 87-point season with the OHL Erie Otters the year before, Burakovsky scored a goal in his first NHL game and immediately looked like he belonged with the big boys, recording three goals and nine assists in his first 15 games with the Caps.
Asked about his early success in mid-November, Burakovsky said the transition to the NHL was easier than he anticipated, but it was about to get harder.
From Nov. 14 to Dec. 4 Burakovsky had one goal, no assists and was a minus-5 and Capitals coach Barry Trotz yanked him from the lineup, making him a healthy scratch in eight of the team’s next 11 games. During that time Burakovsky missed a chance to play for Sweden in the World Junior Championships.
He returned to the lineup for 10 more games and scored three more goals, but Trotz was unhappy with his defensive play. Over the final two months of the season Burakovsky was assigned to the AHL Hershey Bears on four separate occasions and was a healthy scratch for the Capitals 10 more times, including the first three games of the playoffs.
Burakovsky, who finished the regular season with nine goals, 13 assists and a plus-12 rating in 53 games, quietly stewed, saying he wanted to prove to Trotz that he belonged on the ice and “not in the stands.”
He was given that chance in Game 4 of the Caps’ first-round series against the Islanders and he was a solid two-way player for the remainder of the playoffs, averaging 12:24 of ice time and having a monster two-goal game against the Rangers in Game 4, where he showed off his lightning-quick release to beat Henrik Lundqvist twice in the same game.
“I think the playoffs were really important for me to prove I could play at such a high level,” Burakovsky said. “I was really happy with my playoff. I thought I played really good and that’s something I can take into this season.”
By the end of last season Burakovsky was up to 200 pounds, far bigger than the 178 pounds when he was drafted. But the Caps wanted him to come to training camp stronger, both in the upper body and in his core muscle group.
After the Bears were eliminated in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs, where he scored a goal in his only playoff game, Burakovsky said he took off five days before starting on- and off-ice workouts in Sweden, where he worked on strengthening his core.
He returned to Washington weighing 205 pounds and feeling better equipped to handle the heavy interior play of the NHL.
“I just feel like I can handle the hits better,” Burakovsky said. “My balance is a lot better this year because I worked a lot with the core. It feels like I have a lot more balance when I’m skating and guys hit me.”
“I feel really good. My skating feels good, my legs are a lot stronger, too, and my shot is good. It feels really good to get to camp.”
With center Nicklas Backstrom recovering from offseason hip surgery, Trotz has told Burakovsky to be prepared to play both center and left wing during the Caps’ seven-game preseason, which begins on Monday night.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Burakovsky said. “It doesn’t bother me at all. I can play center, left wing, right wing. It doesn’t matter to me at all. I just want to give 100 percent.”
However he is used, Burakovsky said he is certain of one thing. At the age of 20 he is much more prepared to be an impact player in the NHL this season than he was a year ago.
“I think the longer you stay in the league you get more comfortable with the routine and how the game works up here,” he said. “I feel a lot more comfortable this season than last season.”
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