WASHINGTON – The Capitals scored four goals to force a point against the Florida Panthers on Saturday and three of those four goals came from the third line.
Brett Connolly recorded his second career three-point game with two goals and an assist. Lars Eller scored a goal and an assist and Andre Burakovsky assisted on both of Connolly’s tallies. The one glaring setback to the night was a late penalty from Connolly as he chopped the stick out of Aleksander Barkov’s hands resulting in a slashing call. Florida would score on the resulting power play to win the game.
Overall, however, the improved play of the third line is a good sign for Washington as that line has been a question mark for the majority of the season.
“We have a good mix,” Burakovsky said. “Lars is the horse out there making a lot of good plays and winning almost [every] battle. It’s fun to play with him. And obviously Connolly is a great shooter and a great passer.”
“That’s a positive sign for our line,” Eller said, “Because our team needs that secondary scoring for us to win games. That’s going to be crucial going forward as well.”
With top-nine production being such an important part of a team’s success in today’s NHL, the lack of production from the third line has been concerning.
Eller is currently on pace for 10 goals which would be his lowest output since the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. Connolly has already set a career high in points, but his three goals in the past two games snapped a 13-game goalless drought.
The biggest issue, however, has been Burakovsky who has continued his trend of inconsistent play this season.
Through 49 games, he has only 15 points, putting on pace for 22. That would be his lowest output since his rookie season in 2014-15, a season in which he played just 53 games. That’s not what you would expect from a first-round draft pick in his fifth NHL campaign.
Burakovsky’s play, however, has improved greatly the past two games and he has a goal and two assists to show for it.
“[Burakovsky’s] able to generate some offense now, playing well and capitalizing on chances,” Todd Reirden said.
With the third line finally starting to click, this begs the question, what do the Caps do at the trade deadline?
The Feb. 25 deadline is just over two weeks away and it was believed Burakovsky could be used as trade bait to bring in a forward to jumpstart the third line.
“I think the only thing we're going to look for is, is there a hockey trade to be made, salary for salary, player for player in the forward group,” general manager Brian MacLellan said in January. That seemed like a very clear reference to Burakovsky.
Moving Burakovsky makes sense not just because of his up-and-down play, but because he is on the final year of his deal and would have to be offered a salary of $3.25 million next season in order for the team to qualify him and retain his rights as a restricted free agent. His current level of production does not seem to justify that kind of money.
But if the third line is playing as well as it is now, do you still make a move?
Burakovsky’s career has been plagued by inconsistent play, including in the 2018 playoff run. After playing poorly, he was a healthy scratch for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final. He then rebounded with two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The strong play of both Burakovsky and the third line leaves MacLellan with two options. Do you hold on to Burakovsky and hope he continues this level of play into the playoffs in which case you have an incredibly formidable top-nine? Or, do you assume this is just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys and trade him before you get burned when his play begins to drop off again?
Either option is a gamble. The answer may well depend on what other teams are willing to give up for a player like Burakovsky.
MORE CAPITALS NEWS: