Were you surprised to see Andre Burakovsky playing on the penalty kill Sunday?
The Capitals took four minor penalties in the preseason opener against the Boston Bruins. Among the players Washington turned to when they needed a penalty kill was Burakovsky.
You may be tempted to dismiss it as just head coach Todd Reirden having to dig deep on a limited preseason lineup, but Sunday’s game actually gave us a glimpse of one of the major changes Reirden hopes to bring to the team this year, a more aggressive penalty kill.
“There is always room to get better and those were some spots I thought we could make some adjustments to in the penalty kill and some other things that you’ll maybe see as we move forward,” Reirden told reporters Friday.
A change in philosophy on the penalty kill means finding different personnel to fit that change and, according to general manager Brian MacLellan, we may see another surprise face soon on the PK in Evgeny Kuznetsov.
“I think [Kuznetsov] can be better still,” MacLellan said. “There’s areas in his game — I talk to [Reirden] — I think he can penalty kill, I think he can get better on face-offs, defending in his own end, playing against top players… I think there’s all kinds of areas he has potential to be an elite two-way guy in the league.”
Kuznetsov has tremendous offensive skill, but is not well-known as a two-way player. He also boasts a career face-off percentage of only 45.1-percent, hardly the type of numbers you would look for in a penalty killing center when establishing possession is so important.
For his part, however, Kuznetsov was open to the idea of taking on more of a shutdown role.
“Sometimes I feel that when you play against top guys, it's a little bit more easy because -- it's not easy, but it's just different hockey,” he said. “They're trying to go offensive, and when you break the puck, you open up some offensive chances. They're trying to create something, and that's when you open up those space. When you play against the guys who just put the puck deep every time, they work and they work hard.”
The idea of countering and trying to generate offense out of the opposition’s offensive opportunities is the mentality the Caps seem to be looking for on the penalty kill. In Sunday’s game against Boston, it certainly appeared the penalty killers were not just looking to play defense, but were also trying to generate offensive counters as well. That led to a Jayson Megna breakaway opportunity in the first period.
Having a player like Kuznetsov on the ice would certainly force an opposing team to take notice on the power play. A power play unit would have to account for Kuznetsov or the puck could very quickly end up going in the other direction on the stick of one of the league’s most talented offensive playmakers.
But the main focus of the penalty kill always will be defense and that means getting into shooting lanes, blocking shots and risking injury. Kuznetsov, however, is not focusing on the risk.
"You know I can go outside and break my leg, right?” he said. “That's the same chances. That's hockey, right?”
The only driving factor for Kuznetsov is wanting to get better and helping the team. If that means remaining in a strictly offensive role, he’s fine with that. But he’s also open to becoming a two-way player and moving to the penalty kill.
“If I can play better offensive, then I have to play there more,” Kuznetsov said. “It's just about what coach going to give us, and you just have to execute. It doesn't matter who going to play. It's about the results we're going to get. You can say me and [Alex Ovechkin] can play PK all the time, right? But if it's not going to be best for our team, we don't have to play. We have to do what's best for our team."
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