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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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Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

Projecting the Caps’ opening night roster after first round of cuts

The Capitals are a week into training camp and the opening roster is starting to come into focus. The first round of cuts was made on Thursday and while none of the names were all that shocking, it does tell us that the team does not intend to get cute with its roster makeup with Evgeny Kuznetsov out.

Here’s a projection of the Caps’ opening night roster through the first cuts and first week of camp.

Offense

Alex Ovechkin - Nicklas Backstrom - Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana - Lars Eller - T.J. Oshie
Carl Hagelin - Travis Boyd - Richard Panik
Brendan Leipsic - Nic Dowd - Garnett Hathaway
Chandler Stephenson

Suspended: Evgeny Kuznetsov

The top two lines are all but set. They have been practicing this way for much of camp and it seems unlikely that Todd Reirden will start that way and then randomly shuffle his top six.

Stephenson did little to help his stock on Monday with an underwhelming performance in the preseason opener against a pretty bad Chicago lineup. I see him in Washington the first week but sent down to Hershey once Kuznetsov returns. He is someone who could probably clear waivers even if it not done on the traditional waiver dump right before the league season officially starts. Boyd did a little better than Stephenson on Monday and I think he will ultimately get to stick around this season in case the team wants to boost the offense of the fourth line. For now, he can be inserted in on the third line at center.

Defense

Michal Kempny - John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov - Nick Jensen
Jonas Siegenthaler - Radko Gudas
Christian Djoos

The conversation around Kempny shifted a bit on Wednesday. The sense I was getting prior to that was that the team was all-in on Kempny being ready for the first game of the regular season. Reirden reiterated that on Wednesday, but also said he would like to get him into a preseason game if possible. To me, that may be a sign that Kempny is progressing. Even if he is not ready for the preseason, I do believe he is on pace for the start of the regular season at this point.

I felt Jensen looked pretty comfortable in the preseason opener on Monday. Granted that was against a bad roster, but he red plays well, jumped up into the offense and, critically, he was able to hold his own on the left side which is something he was really dreadful at last season.

Gudas scored a goal on Wednesday, but I thought he looked a bit slow in his own end. As of now, I still give Jensen the edge in that race and I think Gudas will be better off on the third pair anyway.

Djoos was better than Siegenthaler on Monday, but I feel Siegenthaler bought himself some time with his performance in the playoffs last year. It is going to be really hard for the Caps to justify Djoos’ salary as $1.25 million is too much for a No. 6-7 defenseman. Ultimately, the onus is on him to show the team he is someone they simply cannot afford to lose.

There is a way for the team to keep Djoos, but it depends on who backs up Braden Holtby.

Goalie

Braden Holtby
Vitek Vanecek

Vanecek and Ilya Samsonov played well enough on Wednesday that replacing Pheonix Copley seems like a real possibility. You need to see more from them than simply half a preseason game, but we will get that chance as the preseason rolls along. The problem here is Copley’s $1.1 million cap hit. If Vanecek and Samsonov can get the job done for less money -- and it looked like they could against St. Louis -- then Copley is likely headed to waivers.

Why Vanecek over Samsonov? First off, with this roster projection, the team could afford to keep Djoos with Vanecek as a backup with his $716,667 cap hit, but not with Samsonov's $925,000 cap hit. The cap is that tight. Getting Samsonov consistent playing time is also important for his development. He will get that in Hershey, but not in Washington. Vanecek is waiver exempt so the team will still be able to shuffle Samsonov and Vanecek to make sure they both get NHL playing time. That added flexibility is a plus as well. Otherwise, it would mean putting Copley on waivers in the middle of the season when he is probably more likely to get claimed.

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Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

Capitals roster cuts: Draft picks Connor McMichael, Aliaksei Protas headline initial round

The Capitals made their first round of training camp cuts on Thursday, trimming 18 players from the team’s roster including preseason standouts Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas.

McMichael was Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2019. He tallied an incredible assist in Monday’s preseason opener, backhanding a no-look pass to a wide-open Damien Riat. His solid performance earned him another game on Wednesday where he moved up to the third line. The highlight of the night was McMichael attempting a between-the-legs shot on Stanley Cup champion goalie Jordan Binnington.

“It’s a pretty good goalie he was trying that move on,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “He has some swagger to him, he has some confidence. He’s not afraid to try plays. That’s some of the stuff that pushes guys into the first round.”

McMichael’s strong play in camp and in the preseason opened the door perhaps for him to compete to stay in Washington for the start of the season.

With the suspension to Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington finds itself down a center for the first three games. With Lars Eller moving up to the second line, that leaves an opening on the third between Carl Hagelin and Richard Panik, where McMichael played on Wednesday.

That, however, does not appear to be in the cards as McMichael is headed back to his junior team, the London Knights.

Protas, who scored a goal and two assists on Monday, was also among the players cut. A third-round draft pick in 2019, Protas was extremely impressive in the preseason for his all-around game. He showed good awareness, vision and speed. His skating form needs work, but this is a player who looks like he has an NHL future ahead of him which is not always the case for mid-round draft picks.

The fact that McMichael and Protas were among the first cuts should not be seen as an indictment of their play by the team. Junior players are usually among the first cuts so they can return to their teams during training camp. The only reason this was a question was because of Kuznetsov’s suspension, but ultimately the team has other candidates to turn to at third-line center. With a brutal October schedule, the first week of the season may not be the best time to get cute or creative with roster choices.

Here are all of the cuts the Caps made on Thursday:

Loaned to their junior teams:

Eric Flrochuk (Saskatoon, WHL)
Alex Kannok-Leipert (Vancouver, WHL)
Connor McMichael (London, OHL)
Aliaksei Protas (Prince Albert, WHL)

Released from their ATOs:

Hayden Hawkey
Beck Warm

Assigned to Hershey:

Casey Bailey
Erik Burgdoerfer
Tommy Hughes
Kale Kessy
Chris McCarthy
Matt Moulson
Logan Thompson
Matthew Weis
Steven Whitney

Kody Clark and Riley Sutter, who are both dealing with upper-body injuries, were reassigned to Hershey as well to continue rehab.

In addition, Damie Riat has been returned to his European team EHC Biel-Bienne of the NLA in Switzerland.

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