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Key Caps questions: Will this be a breakout year for Andre Burakovsky?

Key Caps questions: Will this be a breakout year for Andre Burakovsky?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Will we see the long-awaited breakout season from Andre Burakovsky this year?

Tarik: There’s no denying Andre Burakovsky’s ability. The quick release on his shot is world class. He effortlessly speeds past opponents with his smooth skating stride. He routinely undresses would-be defenders with his puck-dangling skills.

The 23-year-old’s feel for the game—the all-important where-to-be and when-to-be-there—is improving, too.

But there are still a couple of things that must change—and soon—if he wants to realize his full potential as a perennial 25-goal scorer in the NHL. One is within his control. The other, unfortunately, is not.

Let’s start with the former: mental toughness.

One persistent complaint about Burakovsky four years into his NHL career has been that he’s prone to protracted droughts, 15-20 game slumps where he goes without a goal. Indeed, it’s darn tough to hit 20-25 goals if you go a quarter of the season without one.

In May, Burakovsky acknowledged that he planned to resume working with a sports psychologist in an effort to skate with a clearer head and more easily move past failed plays (like misfired shots and turnovers) rather than stewing about them, a problem that often negatively impacts his performance for the rest of the game.

Will it work? Unclear. But we know this much: the first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that you’ve got one.

The second area that Burakovsky must address is health. This is the one that’s not in his control, at least not entirely. In each of the last couple of years, he’s missed large swaths of games with significant hand injuries. In 2016-17, he was limited to 64 games. Last regular season, he played in only 56. In the playoffs, he missed the final four games vs. Columbus.

Burakovsky has chalked the injuries up to freakishly bad luck. However, he’s also wondered out loud if he needs to wear gloves that provide more protection.

So, is this the year that Burakovsky puts it all together and finally tops 20 goals? If he makes significant strides in the areas of consistency and availability, I'm inclined to say yes.

JJ: Recency bias makes you automatically want to answer this question with an emphatic YES!!! after watching him put up two goals against Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Those two goals, however, were the first two points of the playoffs for him after playing in eight games.

The main two issues for Burakovsky, as Tarik correctly identified, are his mental state and his health.  Since Tarik went at length about each issue, I am not going to rehash them so let's focus on another major factor: coaching.

The way Barry Trotz handled Burakovsky's inconsistencies was by benching him and, to his credit, Burakovsky seemed to respond. Just two games prior to Burakovsky's Game 7 heroics in Tampa, he was a healthy scratch for Game 5. The season prior, Trotz scratched Burakovsky for three straight games after a 26-game goal drought and Burakovsky responded with a goal and an assist in his first game back.

While benching Burakovsky has had the desired effect in the past, that does not seem like it will be Todd Reirden's style. He is much more of a player's coach. We have seen what he can do to a defenseman's career through the personal relationships he develops with players, I have to assume he will try a similar tactic with Burakovsky. Will Reirden prove to be as effective at developing the team's forwards as he has with the defensemen? The Caps better hope so.

As effective as benching Burakovsky seemed to be, those decisions were reactive. The main goal is to prevent those slumps in the first place. The fact that Burakovsky has never eclipsed the 20-goal mark in his career is staggering considering his talent level. Reirden needs to make him a more consistent player.

Obviously getting his mind right and staying healthy are the two most important factors when it comes to a breakout for Burakovsky, but the way Reirden has been able to reach players makes me hopeful he can do the same in this situation.

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How does Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov get ready for a Game 7? He watches TV

How does Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov get ready for a Game 7? He watches TV

Everyone remembers Evgeny Kuznetsov's series-clinching overtime goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2018. That goal now overshadows another series-clinching goal Kuznetsov had in 2015. In Game 7 against the New York Islanders, Kuznetsov scored what would prove to be the winning goal to break up a 1-1 tie. Clearly he knows how to get ready for a big game. His secret? Television.

Kuznetsov appeared on NBC Sports Washington's Capitals Greatest Hits show on Monday to talk about his 2015 performance and the topic of the locker room came up. Both teams went into that game knowing their season was on the line and Kuznetsov was asked if the feeling was any different in the locker room before the game, a question he did not know exactly how to answer.

"I'm never in the locker room," Kuznetsov said. "I'm always by the TV watching TV shows."

Yes, when Kuznetsov arrives at the arena, he apparently likes to watch TV before the game and said he is not in the locker room until only about 30 minutes before warmups. He enjoys watching soccer, but also likes a good movie.

"It's usually soccer games," Kuznetsov said. "If it's not the soccer game, it's whatever the movie's going."

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He went on to say he was thankful for the team subscribing to whatever channel it was that he watches movies on.

If this seems odd to you, there is a method to the madness.

"Usually it's movie because that way I'm not thinking about hockey," Kuznetsov said. "I like to be loose before games."

Hey, if that's what he was doing before Game 7 in 2015 and before Game 6 in 2018, it's hard to argue against it.

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Capitals Greatest Hits: How to watch Evgeny Kuznetsov's series-winning goal

Capitals Greatest Hits: How to watch Evgeny Kuznetsov's series-winning goal

In need of Memorial Day plans? Look no further as NBC Sports Washington presents the fifth and final edition of Capitals Greatest Hits on Monday, May 25, at 7 p.m. 

For this holiday edition of Capitals Greatest Hits, NBC Sports Washington will reair Game 7 of the 2015 Eastern Conference First Round playoff series between the Washington Capitals and the New York Islanders. 

As a special treat, Evgeny Kuznetsov, who delivered the series-winning goal for the Caps, will make a special appearance on the broadcast to talk about his Game 7 heroics from the win-or-go-home showdown.

What better way to cap off a holiday weekend than by reliving some Caps playoff glory with The Birdman himself?

How to Watch: Capitals’ Greatest Hits

Who: New York Islanders @ Washington Capitals — April 27, 2015

When: May 25 at 7 p.m.

Where: NBC Sports Washington (channel finder), stream on the NBC Sports MyTeams app

Guest: Washington Capitals star Evgeny Kuznetsov

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Broadcast Schedule

6:00 PM Capitals Greatest Hits Capitals vs Thrashers from March 21, 2008 (R)

7:00 PM Capitals Greatest Hits Capitals vs Islanders from April 27, 2015 (P)

8:00 PM 2018 Stanley Cup Championship Films: Washington Capitals (P)

10:00 PM #HockeyAtHome: The Great One & The Great Eight (R)

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